Lab DNA panel features James Watson

Dr. James Watson, a co-discoverer of DNA's double Dr. James Watson, a co-discoverer of DNA's double helix, sips a beer at Eagle Pub on Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory's campus. (Feb. 28, 2013). Photo Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

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James Watson, chancellor emeritus of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and the only living member of the team that discovered DNA's helical structure, speaks Saturday at the lab, celebrating the 60th anniversary of the scientific landmark.

The first lectures began Thursday.

The celebration is being characterized as an asset for Long Island -- and the world.

"Long Island has played a central role in what we know today as contemporary molecular biology and genetics, fields that would not have been possible without the seminal discovery of the structure of DNA," laboratory spokeswoman Dagnia Zeidlickis said.

"The meeting this week is just an example of the magnetic force here that draws the best and brightest," she said.

Opening lectures Thursday featured scientists from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan, the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tubingen, Germany, and the Wellcome Trust in Britain.

Adam Fagen, executive director of the Genetics Society of America in Bethesda, Md., said it's important to recognize the anniversary of the Watson and Francis Crick finding because it touched off a revolution in biological discovery.

"Obviously, it was a very critical discovery and especially because of what the structure turned out to be," Fagen said of the chemical basis of life.

Bacteria package their genetic information in DNA, as do trees, mosquitoes and even the quirky organisms known as archaea that dwell in hot springs and on the ocean floor.

"There was a comment at the end of the paper by Watson and Crick [published in the journal Nature in 1953] that suggested the mechanism by which DNA functioned. So the discovery of the double helix not only helped us understand the structure [of the molecule], but also how it worked," Fagen said.

Watson, meanwhile, hardly had a moment to spare yesterday as guests began arriving to attend evening lectures and other festivities.

He found time to stop briefly at the bar on the laboratory's campus, which has been redecorated in his honor.

Fittingly, the space has been temporarily transformed into a replica of the Eagle Pub in Cambridge, England, where he and Francis Crick dropped by for a respite from their research on Feb. 28, 1953.

The anniversary meeting's opening session was timed to mark that date.

The two scientists conducted their DNA studies at nearby Cambridge University.

Alex Gann, dean of the Watson School for Biological Sciences at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, said the discovery occurred after decades of investigations by countless other scientists.

Ever since the 19th century, Gann said, scientists had tried to elucidate how living organisms packaged genetic information.

DNA, however, was not discovered by Watson and Crick, Gann noted, but by the Rockefeller University team of Oswald Avery, Colin MacLeod and Maclyn McCarty in Manhattan.

That trio isolated the molecule in 1946 in studies involving bacteria. What eluded them, Gann added, was the molecule's all-important structure.

McCarty, who died in 2005, attended the 50th anniversary celebration of the Watson and Crick discovery at Cold Spring Harbor in 2003.

"This meeting is called from Base Pairs to Body Plan," he said of the paired units that signify DNA's chemistry. "So there will be a lot of talk about gene expression and stem cells and evolution of development," Gann said.

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