Jim Watson's "Asian" Genes: You Read It Here First

By Carl Zimmer | August 19, 2008 3:01 pm

Just a quick follow up to my post a couple weeks ago about a talk by genome pioneer Craig Venter. Venter mentioned a new study comparing the two complete individual human genomes–Venter’s own, and that of James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA. I wrote:

Humans, Venter and other researchers are finding, are more genetically variable than the earlier estimates. Our DNA does not just vary letter by letter, but by entire genes–some of us are missing some genes entirely, and others have extra copies. Venter discovered that he has two copies of a gene variant that speeds up the metabolism of some toxins. Watson’s variants don’t. It turns out that Watson’s variants are very rare in people of European descent, but very common in China. He’s becoming a veritable melting pot.

Well, the study is now out, in the journal Clinical Therapeutics and Pharmacology. The authors use the results of the comparison to argue against race-based medicine, and for personal genomics:

 The cost of sequencing and genotyping is aggressively decreasing,  enabling pervasive personalized genomic screening for drug reactions. Drug-metabolizing genes have been characterized  sufficiently to enable practitioners to go beyond simplistic ethnic characterization and into the precisely targeted world of personal genomics. We examine six drug-metabolizing genes in J. Craig Venter and James Watson, two Caucasian men whose genomes were recently sequenced. Their genetic differences underscore the importance of personalized genomics over a race-based approach to medicine. To attain truly personalized medicine, the scientific community must aim to elucidate the genetic and environmental factors that contribute to drug reactions and not be satisfied with a simple race-based approach.


Comments (9)

  1. Their genetic differences underscore the importance of personalized genomics over a race-based approach to medicine.

    the two aren’t opposed; you probably need population level information even if you know someone’s genome in details because until we’re omniscient you might need to account for response of a variant within a particular genetic background.

  2. TCS

    I’m probably not the only one who hopes that some “African” gene variants are also discovered in Watson’s sequence.

    [Carl: Here you go!]

  3. neurotom

    assuming that drugs are the optimal solution to all our problems (?) what about the influence of environmental or mental training interventions that may also ‘tweak’ genetic expression within individuals and/or within a particular genetic background?

  4. Marc

    TCS, why would you care one way or the other for such a thing? Because James Watson made the mistake of mentioning that, on average, sub-Saharan Africans score lower on tests of intelligence than other groups? So now, if he has African gene variants, we can play “gotcha!” somehow? I would remind you that 1) racial gaps in performance on intelligence tests are well established (google the APA’s definitive statement on IQ, Knowns and Unknowns); the causes behind the gaps (genes, environment or a mix of both) are up for debate, but the gaps themselves are not, and 2) Mr. Watson said this particular gap made him “despondent.” How do you respond to data showing a persistent gap in IQ between two groups? Happiness? Seriously.

    The man was the victim of a witch hunt orchestrated by small minds who completely misunderstood what he was saying. They heard “race” and “intelligence” and had a rabid, Pavlovian response. The gap in IQ between the races is real, and assuming it is at least partly environmental in origin, our chances of reducing it or eliminating it completely are much, much higher if we allow ourselves to have honest discussions about it. Instead we string up great men of science for merely pointing out publicly what tests have been showing for decades. I guess pulling down great men is more fun for most people than thinking deeply and seriously about important issues.

  5. Peter

    While the IQ gap may be real, it is important to remember that the variance within a group is far greater than the variance between groups.

  6. Joe

    I agreed with Marc. Watson was merely reporting an observation he made, not making a definition. The attack on him only achieved in making other scientists talk more politically correct than tell the truth.

    Does the fact that Watson’s gene variant is more common in China mean that the Chinese are smarter? I am sure many will augue that.

  7. Ted Boronovskis

    I drifted lonely as a cloud;
    O’re hill & dale of political correctness;
    Could not help but think;
    The fiery stake ain’t far away;
    Fie, gentfolke all;
    Lest we go that way.

  8. Johann G

    Yes, that gene variant probably made Watson all the smarter. Soon the Chinese will take over with their exponentially growing economy. Scary if you ask me!


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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