Giants in genomics: Robert Waterston

Robert H. Waterston is an American biologist well known for his work on sequencing the genome of the nematode worm C. elegans alongside John Sulston. He is also recognised for his part in sequencing the human, mouse and chimpanzee genomes. 

Robert ‘Bob’ Waterston was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1943. It was during his senior year at Princeton that he decided to pursue a career in medicine. However, he had neither a qualification in biology nor a foreign language, both of which were required at the time for acceptance into most medical schools.  So, Bob and his bride set out for Germany for a year to learn German and biology, the former in night classes and the latter at Ludwig Maximillian Universtat in Munich.

Bob entered medical school at the University of Chicago with relatively little interest in biology. He was soon inspired by the classes, especially those dealing with the latest research. After carrying out his own summer research, he developed a real enthusiasm for the subject and decided to pursue a PhD alongside his MD. 

In the summer of 1969, during the PhD part of his training, Bob took a course at Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, in Massachusetts. This was where he first met Sydney Brenner, a prolific South African biologist who established the nematode worm C. elegans as a model organism. Bob became fascinated with Sydney’s work after attending one of his public lectures discussing his work on the worm but Bob had to return to Chicago to finish his degrees. 

Having obtained his PhD, Bob became the third American postdoctoral researcher to join Sydney Brenner's group in April 1972.

By the end of 1971, Sydney had agreed to take Bob on as a post-doc working on the worm.  Having obtained his PhD, Bob became the third American postdoctoral researcher to join Sydney Brenner's group in April 1972. Through Sydney, Bob was introduced to the grand project then beginning at the MRC's Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) in Cambridge: to understand life at the molecular level through studying C. elegans.

Sydney was looking for worms with mutations that affected their ability to move, as part of the search for genes controlling movement. During the project Bob discovered new mutants affecting muscle and made discoveries that led to the cloning of genes for two key muscle proteins found in the worm and shared with other animals.

Bob returned to the USA in 1976 as an assistant professor of anatomy and neurobiology at Washington University in St Louis, and set up a lab dedicated to studying the molecular biology of muscle in the worm. A few years later he moved to the Department of Genetics. There, he and his colleagues identified many more muscle genes and investigated their role in the muscles of C. elegans. In 1991, he became chair.

Dr Robert Waterston 

In the mid-1980s he made a sabbatical visit to the LMB with the intent to work with Sydney Brenner’s worm group. But the only space available was in the room where John Sulston and Alan Coulson were beginning to map the worm genome. Bob joined them, and after his return to St. Louis the worm map became a collaborative project between the two labs.

At the time, the scientific community were very sceptical about using the same techniques to sequence the human genome. Fortunately, Bob and John did anyway.

In 1989, one of the first Human Genome Project grants went to Bob and John to begin sequencing the worm genome. They were so successful that at the same time that the Wellcome Trust established the Sanger Centre with John at its head, Bob received funding from the National Human Genome Research Institute to scale up their efforts to finish the worm sequence.  As part of that grant they also had some funds to sequence portions of the yeast genome and to explore the possibilities of using their methods on the human genome.  At the time, the scientific community were very sceptical about using the same techniques to sequence the human genome. In fact, the review group considering Bob’s grant suggested that he should not use the money to pursue the human sequence. Fortunately, he and John did anyway.

Their partnership became the first to complete the genome sequence of an animal when the worm genome was published in December 1998, and both of their labs played a key role in completing the human genome sequence.  St. Louis also played a lead role in producing the draft sequence of the mouse genome and later the chimpanzee genome. It also contributed substantially to the yeast and Arabidopsis genomes and with Marco Marra at the helm, constructed the physical map that provided the framework for the assembly of the human draft sequence.

Bob Waterston has always been committed to the free release of scientific information and was an influential voice in establishing the Bermuda Principles on data sharing in 1996.

Like John Sulston, Bob Waterston has always been committed to the free release of scientific information, and he was an influential voice in establishing the Bermuda Principles on data sharing in 1996. This was recognised alongside the numerous awards won by John and Bob for their scientific work and their support for the scientific community.

In January 2003, Bob moved from St Louis to take up the chair of a new Department of Genome Sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle. As William Gates III Professor of Biomedical Sciences, he is leading research into the genetic control of development in the nematode.  The Department of Genome Sciences has been recognised worldwide for its many contributions to genome research.

This page was last updated on 2016-06-13