(Image: “Joan Steitz, Watson, Nancy Hopkins, and Jeff Roberts,” CSHL Archives Repository, Reference JDW/1/8/27, accessed March 24, 2020, http://libgallery.cshl.edu/items/show/51335.)
LC: Dr. James Watson came and gave a talk at Fred Hutch a couple years ago and said something about how genome sequencing technology is great, but that the future of cancer research and other research is in understanding the translational process beyond just mapping mutations. But obviously Dr. Watson is famous for his DNA research. What attracted you to RNA, coming from his lab?
JS: Actually RNA was a focus of the Watson lab at the time I was there. So there were sort of three projects in the lab. One was ribosomes, what ribosomes are like. At that time people knew that phages had a coat protein on the outside, and they were either RNA or DNA on the inside. People actually thought the ribosome might be like that with all these proteins on the outside. It wasn’t even known that there were multiple kinds of ribosomal proteins.
So people worked on ribosomes, and some people worked on RNA phages, which is what I did. They were small and simple, and everybody fervently believed you had to start simple if you were going to figure out anything about the mechanisms of life. And I was figuring out what the various genes do, the essential three genes before a fourth was discovered 15 years later, but basically three genes pretty much does it.
And the third thing was the mechanism of translation, the initiation, the termination of translation. And as I was leaving, there started to be interest in a younger grad student who was set to work on RNA polymerase, so it was a very RNA-centered lab. After DNA, Jim thought RNA was really cool and we needed to know more about it. And of course at that time transfer RNA, messenger RNA, and ribosomal RNA were all that was known. That was believed to be the whole universe of RNA molecules. And I have just been lucky that it turns out there are a lot more kinds of RNA and they do all sorts of important and interesting things.