More than five decades after that remarkable breakthrough, and two years after he again created history as the first person to have his own human genome mapped, James Watson is pursuing his final daunting challenge - to tackle the mysteries of mental illness.
His motivation is, in part, deeply personal. His son Rufus, 38, is a schizophrenic who lives at home, unable to cope with the outside world, and friends say that Mr Watson now has renewed hope that he can act as the catalyst for one last ground-breaking discovery.
For when Mr Watson's genome was sequenced in 2007, he was the million dollar man - the process cost a prohibitive seven figure sum. But what he calls the era of "Chevrolet genome" has now arrived as the cost has been slashed to just $20,000, the price of a new car.
He does not discuss Rufus's condition, aware that his bright but troubled son reads all about himself online. But he has previously described a bright child who struggled with his school work, unable to organise his thoughts or plan ahead, and who first received hospital treatment at 16.
"Warm and perceptive, Rufus cannot lead an independent life because of schizophrenia, lacking the ability to engage in day-to-day activities," he wrote. "For all too long, my wife and I hoped that what Rufus needed was an appropriate challenge on which to focus. But as he passed into adolescence, I feared the origin of his diminished life lay in his genes. It was this realisation that led me to help to bring the human genome project into existence."
Now the molecular biologist hopes to raise the funds to map the genomes of at least 1,000 people - and perhaps 5,000 - with serious mental illness. He hopes that will be enough to throw light on the incredibly complex genetic combinations that produce conditions like those faced by Rufus.
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