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DNA pioneer Watson to be honored by lab at 90th birthday

Leading experts will give scientific talks on topics and trends, ranging from molecular biology to the possibility of life elsewhere in the cosmos.

James Watson, a co-discoverer of DNA's double-helix structure,

James Watson, a co-discoverer of DNA's double-helix structure, in his office at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on June 10, 2015. Photo Credit: J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Nobel Prize winner James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA’s structure more than six decades ago, turns 90 on Friday — a milestone that will be celebrated at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Saturday with scientific talks from leading experts in a variety of disciplines.

The event will cover topics that range from molecular biology to the possibility of life elsewhere in the cosmos, well beyond the boundaries of Earth.

“Jim is, of course, a historic figure for his central role in discovering the double-helix structure of DNA in 1953 — perhaps the most important discovery in biology in the 20th century, for which he won his Nobel Prize nine years later,” said Dr. Alexander Gann, dean of the Watson School of Biological Sciences at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

“Beyond that, his position as a towering figure in the biological sciences comes down to many other things,” Gann said. “His books have been immensely influential: ‘Molecular Biology of the Gene,’ his textbook first published in 1965, defined the field of molecular biology for students for the first time. It also changed how textbooks were written.”

Saturday’s gathering will include discussions on emerging trends that allow scientists — and even enthusiastic amateurs — to hack into DNA, the blueprint of life, with new gene-editing tools. It is not open to the public.

“I am very excited about being a part of the program,” said Dr. Ellen Jorgensen, president and founder of Biotech Without Borders, a community laboratory in Brooklyn.

“My talk will be about the democratization of biotechnology — how the discoveries of the last century, regarding DNA, have led to this point where working with DNA is accessible to the general public through this new vehicle, community laboratories.

“I don’t think that Dr. Watson and his colleagues could have imagined how far we would go when they were doing their early research, or whether they would have conceived of DNA [research] being accessible to the general public,” Jorgensen said. “It’s kind of mind-blowing how far we’ve come.”

Watson, who was not available Thursday for an interview, told Newsday in 2015 at the age of 87 that he hoped to live well into his 90s. He said that he regularly played tennis to stay in shape.

His later years have been largely devoted to studying the biological mechanisms that underlie cancer. He has written prolifically in scientific and lay publications theorizing about the clearest paths to a cure.

In a 2009 New York Times op-ed article, he chided the research community for not taking cancer research seriously enough.

“Hardly anyone I know works on Sunday or even much on Saturday, as almost no one believes that his or her current work will soon lead to a big cure,” Watson wrote then.

He and his colleague, the late Francis Crick, cracked the code of life at Britain’s Cambridge University, a breakthrough that was reported in the journal Nature. They were part of the worldwide race to discover the DNA molecule’s configuration.

Maurice Wilkins, a collaborator of DNA researcher Rosalind Franklin at Kings College in London, shared the Nobel with Watson and Crick. While Franklin was the first to capture a clear X-ray image of the molecule, she died in 1958 of ovarian cancer. The prize is not awarded posthumously.

Crick died in July 2004 and Wilkins died in October 2004.

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