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Winding Your Way Through DNA Symposium

Opening Session

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 these.

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 novelist.

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.

  1. Charles Darwin's proposal that the species evolved under the influence of natural selection.

  2. Gregor Mendel's deduction that the properties of living things result from the inheritance of factors, now called genes.

  3. Watson and Crick's announcement that DNA, the chemical form of genes, is composed of two strands, intertwined and paired.

  4. 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.




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