Now about that famous race. Despite the negotiated “draw,” the general spin seems to be that Celera Genomics won. But Arnold Levine, president of Rockefeller University, shrewdly observed recently that Celera had a great advantage by entering the race when it was nearly over. Part of that advantage was technological, the other cultural.
Back in the days of Santa Cruz, sequencing was universally perceived as factory-style “big science,” utterly devoid of creativity. It seemed so dull that only when the Department of Energy looked poised to take over the project (and, many feared, turn it into a political boondoggle) did the National Institutes of Health reluctantly become involved. Once the government committed $3 billion to the 15-year project, a huge economic infrastructure grew up around the endeavor.
Lee Hood, meanwhile, left the Santa Cruz meeting more convinced than ever that DNA sequencing machines had a future; Michael Hunkapiller, a postdoc in Hood’s lab, went on to become the unheralded da Vinci of DNA in this whole story, designing wondrous machines at Applied Biosystems, which later became P.E. Biosystems. And it was Hunkapiller who called Venter in 1998 and convinced Celera that with the latest generation of machines, it would be possible to sequence the human genome much sooner than originally thought.
If I were a biologist, I’d be a little nervous right now about having raised public expectations unrealistically. The genome project will indeed revolutionize medicine. The question is: When? We’ve been reading advance excerpts from the “book of life” for years and haven’t been able to make much sense of it. Ask the people with sickle-cell anemia: The exact molecular nature of that genetic disorder has been known for 25 years, and still no cure.
Therefore the most interesting question now is the time frame in which this future unfolds, and whether the public has the patience to await the fruits so extravagantly promised in June. On the day the sequence was announced, I called up David Botstein and asked if “biology’s moonshot” warranted all the fuss. “We’ve flown around the moon,” he said with a laugh, “but we haven’t actually landed on it, and we haven’t collected anything yet.”