Waterston, Robert (1943-), an American geneticist, is an influential scientist and administrator. He heads one of the major laboratories participating in the Human Genome Project, an international collaboration to analyze the hereditary instructions contained in DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid).
An early pioneer in the field, Waterston became interested in genome research in 1972, when he began investigating the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans. He is the director of the genome-sequencing center at Washington University's School of Medicine in St. Louis, a leading organization in the effort to map the human genetic code. The worldwide genome project began in the early 1990's with a goal to analyze the human genome as well as that of the house mouse, roundworm, and fruit fly. By 1998, the DNA sequencing of C. elegans had been completed.
Since starting work on the human genome in 1996, scientists have discovered that humans have 40,000 genes, a number much smaller than anticipated. Only slight variations in genomes account for differences in traits such as hair and eye color. This type of information may prove useful in a number of areas, such as understanding the process of evolution better. Analyzing genomes may also help scientists determine which genes are responsible for certain diseases and help doctors diagnose and treat illnesses such as cystic fibrosis and cancer.
Robert Hugh Waterston was born in Detroit. He was educated at Princeton University and received Ph.D. and M.D. degrees from the University of Chicago in 1972. Before joining the faculty at Washington in 1976, he served a postdoctoral fellowship in Cambridge, England, and an internship in pediatric medicine at Children's Hospital in Boston. In 1993, he was appointed James S. McDonnell professor and chairman of the department of genetics at Washington's medical school.