Nobel scientist happy to 'play god' with DNA

Click to follow
The Independent Online

A leading academic and Nobel prize-winner said yesterday there was nothing intrinsically wrong with the idea of scientists "playing god" by modifying the genetic essence of life.

Jim Watson, who co-discovered the structure of DNA in 1953 with Francis Crick, answered the many critics of genetic engineering who argued that the technology was so powerful it enabled scientists to play at being god.

"But then, in all honesty, if scientists don't play god, who will?" Dr Watson told the annual meeting of the all-party Parliamentary and Scientific Committee.

The Human Genome Project, which aims to sequence all 3 billion "letters" of the human genetic code, will enable scientists to treat and even predict many incurable illnesses, Dr Watson said.

"We should be happy to predict the future if we can reverse some bad futures," he argued.

The full sequence of the human genome would soon be completed, allowing scientists to identify the 70,000 or so genes hidden in the code, he said. "We now have the script for the play of life, and from the play you can identify the actors."

Dr Watson, the president of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Maine, implored politicians to intervene in the "mess" over DNA patenting, which he said was partly caused by patent lawyers not being able to understand the purposes to which a DNA breakthrough could be used.

The success of a patent application depended on its inventors being able to show it was not obvious as well as being useful, Dr Watson said. "But not obvious to whom?" Many patent lawyers were also ignorant of the potential uses of a DNA invention, he told the committee. "If it's not obvious to a monkey they give you a patent."

But Dr Watson said DNA patenting was not in the long-term interests of society. "We want this information to be used as widely as possible."