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Listen or download interview (mp3, 30 minutes, 29MB)
As the son of an African-American man and an Irish-American woman in 1950s America, Anthony James came up against considerable odds. But his family's commitment to education and his own conviction—born of witnessing the dramatic impact of Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine—that science could help solve some of the world’s problems buoyed him and ultimately led him to the University of California, Irvine and a doctorate in molecular biology. After straying from his first love, animal genetics, into DNA recombination research and then back to animals, James merged the disciplines to take on one very serious world problem: mosquito-borne diseases, which kill millions of people each year. He is now best known for his work to genetically engineer mosquitoes that can't transmit malaria, dengue fever and similar diseases. Drawing from their studies of the genetic makeup of mosquitoes in the lab and James' expertise in DNA manipulation, he and his colleagues created a gene that renders mosquitoes resistant to the pathogens that make humans sick. Although it has only been tested in the lab so far, James plans to eventually introduce the gene into mosquito populations in the wild, in hopes of slowing or stopping the spread of these deadly diseases. James is a professor of molecular biology and biochemistry at his alma mater, UC Irvine, and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2006.
Anthony James talks about the prejudice he and his racially mixed family faced growing up outside Los Angeles in the 1950s. He enters college amid the upheaval of the 1960s and finds himself adrift, trying different majors until he hits upon biology and an opportunity to work in a lab that studies fruit flies. Fascinated by animal genetics, he sticks with flies and goes on to graduate school, but then switches fields to follow the love of his life to Boston. There he joins a lab researching DNA recombination technology and calls this the best decision he ever made, because the scientific detour laid the groundwork for his current research.
James discusses his lab's goals and successes in genetically modifying mosquitoes, along with concerns over what consequences his mosquito gene might have when it’s out in the world—a concern he shares. He cites "not being smart enough" to take on every question that intrigues him as his greatest obstacle, and urges young would-be scientists to think beyond their circumstances and carve out a career they will love.
Last Updated: 06-08-2009
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The audio files linked above are part of the National Academy of Sciences InterViews series. Opinions and statements included in these audio files are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Academy of Sciences.