We’ve come a long way from the Babbling Brook Inn. That’s the hostelry in Santa Cruz, Calif., where a handful of dreamers-and a few skeptics-gathered in May of 1985 and hatched what ultimately evolved into the Human Genome Project. You’d never guess by the hosannas of press coverage in June, when the first rough draft of the human sequence was announced, that the idea initially had struck everyone as ridiculous.
To those of us who have watched this effort unfold over the past 15 years, it’s been surprising, and a little demoralizing, to see the early history of the project subsumed in the entrepreneurial brinksmanship, historical amnesia and Orwellian newspeak of contemporary science.
Biologists celebrated the “completion” of the sequence, yet it is incomplete-perhaps significantly incomplete. We were told a great race had taken place, but we allowed the participants to concoct a self-interested finish line, with no referees to certify the degree of completion or quality. We were frequently reminded of the lone-wolf virtuosity of J. Craig Venter, whose company, Celera Genomics, took on the Whole Government and won; we were too infrequently reminded that the race took place only after the public consortium had spent years clearing the brush and grooming the track.
It’s worth revisiting the Santa Cruz meeting and its cast of characters, therefore, to see how much-and how little-things have changed. The meeting was organized by biologist Robert Sinsheimer, then at the University of California at Santa Cruz, who was the first person to popularize the endeavor as “biology’s moonshot.” Leroy Hood, then of Caltech, became excited by the prospect of developing automated machines for such a project. Wally Gilbert, who helped develop some of the original sequencing techniques in his Harvard lab, riled the multitudes when he spoke of copyrighting-copyrighting!-the human genome and then selling the information to drug companies. The nerve of the guy!
And then there was David Botstein. This curmudgeonly geneticist, then at MIT, raised the most prophetic objection of all. Having the entire human sequence, he argued, was like having a complete set of Egyptian hieroglyphics and no Rosetta stone. Without the sequence of other organisms for comparison, especially the mouse (which we are still waiting for), the human sequence remains largely unreadable. And that is where we stand today, several months after the greatest achievement in the history of biology. We have 3.1 billion letters of human DNA in hand, and we’re still functional illiterates when it comes to reading the text.