Winding Your Way Through DNA Symposium
San Francisco, California
September 25-26, 1992
Introduction by Harold Varmus, MD
Symposium Chair and Session host Harold E. Varmus, MD, is professor of microbiology and of
biochemistry at the University of California, San Francisco. In 1989
Varmus and his UCSF colleague, J. Michael Bishop, were awarded the Nobel
Prize in medicine for their studies of cancer-causing genes.
I'm Harold Varmus, Chairman of the DNA Symposium organizing committee.
It is really happening! I'm your host for tonight's session. On
behalf of the UCSF and our partner, the Exploratorium, I'd like to
welcome the audience here in the Palace of Fine Arts Theater, those who
are watching by closed circuit TV in the Exploratorium's theater and
those who are receiving the proceedings by satellite at UCSF, elsewhere
in the Bay Area, throughout California and indeed across the nation.
- First, we will introduce the discoveries about DNA that
led to biotechnology.
- Second, tomorrow morning we will survey some of the
applications of biotechnology in health and agriculture.
- Third, tomorrow afternoon, we will consider how those
applications may affect medical ethics, environmental policies, and
our legal system, and what the government should do to regulate all
At the end of the three sessions Leon Lederman will put what you have
heard in a larger perspective, asking how society can adapt to
technological change. This is a challenging schedule and throughout it
we hope to keep you entertained, comfortable and even well fed. At the
end of tonight's session we will have a brief musical treatment.
Here's how the sessions will go. Speakers will have about 25 minutes.
After each presentation and at the end of each session the speakers will
be questioned by a panel of distinguished journalists who are seated to
your left. Natalie Angier, a science writer for the New York Times;
Marcia Barinaga, a staff writer for Science magazine; Marilyn Chase, a
staff writer for the Wall Street Journal; and Stephen Hall, a free-lance
science journalist. Steve, by the way, will be talking about his latest
book Mapping the Next Millennium at the Exploratorium this Sunday
afternoon. The panel is here to ask questions, clarify, amplify or even
challenge each speaker's remarks. The panel will also serve as a
conduit for your questions. After each talk ushers will collect
questions written on the 3x5 cards provided in your program.
Our objectives in staging the symposium have been to tell you, a general
audience composed of high school students, teachers, family,
journalists, and diverse other informed citizens about the current
excitement in biology, to introduce you to some of the people who are
responsible for that excitement and to consider some of the ways in
which our culture might be affected for better or for worse by
biotechnology. During the next day and a half you will sense our
enthusiasm for the revelations and applications of modern genetics.
But we also recognize that biological science represents but one of many
valid ways to attempt to understand human beings, our origins and the
world in which we live. Thus, to study the nature of matter of the
origins of the universe we need the skills of the physicist or the
cosmologist. To probe the behavior of human beings we require the
techniques of the anthropologist, the historian, the psychologist or the
But to appreciate the evolution and function of living forms, single
cells, plants and animals, the tools of the geneticist and the
biochemist have proven indispensable.
- How does a single cell, the fertilized egg, store the information necessary for the development of a mature animal?
- What is that information?
- How is it organized?
- How is it read out in a controlled fashion during development?
- How does the information differ among members of a species or indeed
between members of different species?
These are questions that have long tantalized biologists. Answers to
them are inherently fascinating. And they provide a foundation for
powerful new technologies. Looking back over the past two centuries of
biological research, we can see at least three, perhaps four pivotal
moments that transformed the study of life and provoked profound changes
in our culture.
- Charles Darwin's proposal that the species evolved under the
influence of natural selection.
- Gregor Mendel's deduction that the properties of living things
result from the inheritance of factors, now called genes.
- Watson and Crick's announcement that DNA, the chemical form of
genes, is composed of two strands, intertwined and paired.
- Boyer and Cohen's demonstration that DNA from one organism could be
grown in another.
In each case all the efforts induced cataclysmic changes in our culture.
Darwin's catalogue of finches and tortoises ultimately challenged
religious beliefs about the origin of man. Mendel's measurement of pea
plants provoked among other things insidious proposals for improving the
human species. And Watson and Crick's model building inspired the
discoveries you will hear about tonight, discoveries that reveal the
nature of genes, and through the work of Boyer and Cohen resulted in a
new and powerful industry.
Our program this evening will introduce you to many of these discoveries
and to several of the people who made them. Darwin and Mendel were
unavailable, so we will begin with Jim Watson who will recount the
unveiling of the DNA double helix and some of the remarkable events that
followed. Paul Berg will then explain how information is stored and
organized in DNA, how genes are read out to make proteins, and how
genetic material can be manipulated in the laboratory. That should
prepare you for hearing Stan Cohen and Herb Boyer's story about their
pioneering work with recombinant DNA, the first experiments in which DNA
from vertebrate animals was grown in a bacterial cell. To conclude the
formal presentations, David Botstein will describe some of the ways in
which recombinant DNA technologies can be harnessed to make valuable
proteins or to make genetic maps.
Jim Watson, our first speaker, has been one of the world's most visible
and influential scientists for nearly 40 years: as the co-discoverer of
the structure of DNA in 1953; as the director since 1968 of the Cold
Spring Harbor Laboratory, that Mecca of scientific meeting places;
and as the first director of the National Center for Human Genome
Research. Equally important, Jim has transformed the nature of
scientific writing, especially in his autobiographical work, The
Double Helix, an unabashed account of the trials and delights of
discovery and in The Molecular Biology of the Gene, a textbook of
remarkable clarity and charm that has inspired a new generation of
textbook writers. As an author, administrator and professor, Jim has
been our most marvelous missionary for the game.