Recorded: 31 May 2003
Okay. I’ll tell you, I’m sure, I remember a couple of things. One is the fairly intense argument over the degree to which this doing human genome sequencing would result in taking money away from other biological research; which really was, I think, the main concern of the people who were opposed to the project at the time. David Botstein, in particular, I remember arguing pretty vociferously that congressman were not dumb, and no matter how much you tried to make the genome sequencing a separate line item in the budget, that inevitably it would wind up taking money away from some of the other biological research supported by the N.I.H.. And, fortunately, that turned out to be wrong. But that debate was pretty intense.
And the other thing I remember was at the very end of the discussion, Kary Mullis getting up and saying [that] he really did not have any ideas as to whether it was a good thing or not to sequence the human genome, but if it was going to be sequenced we needed to do something about “C”’s and “G”’s, because you could go blind trying to tell a “C” from a “G”, and you if you had three billion of these nucleotides it would drive people crazy. And he also pointed that it was unfair that there was a “C” base honoring Crick, but there was no “W” base honoring Watson. And he proposed to deal with both problems at one stroke by changing quanine (?) to wanasine with a “W”. And that this would solve the problem. And at this point, the whole meeting sort of collapsed in laughter, and I think that was about when the discussion ended. That was quite humorous.
So those are actually my main recollections. The other thing I remember about the meeting is the sort of collaborative research; David Botstein was on the scientific advisory board, Eric Lander was a collaborator with a company and I actually got to know Eric fairly well at this meeting. We spent a long time discussing methods for making multi locus linkage maps in humans; he had some ideas, I had some ideas about how to go about doing that because we really did not have the mathematical algorithms or the computer programs that were necessary. And so that was sort of the start of a productive collaboration with him. We spent a fair amount of time walking around the grounds and talking about those issues.
I think it was—I mean, the issues that were raised in the discussion—the discussion was not really resolved. It was not as though a consensus or at least I didn’t feel that there was any consensus reached that it was a good thing to go ahead with this project.
But the discussion was very important in raising these issues. I think the concern that the genome project might take money away from other biological research was an important one to air early. And I think ultimately the congressional members of Congress who got interested in the project realized that that was a significant concern, and made sure that there was no budgetary impact on the rest of the N.I.H. budget.
The meeting, I guess, was sort of one step in the process of arriving at a consensus that this would be a good thing to do. But I’m not sure it was the defining point.
Philip Green is a professor of genome sciences, an adjunct professor of the Computer Science and Engineering Department at the University of Washington, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, and was recently elected into the National Academy of Sciences.
Green designs software packages which aid in making genetic maps and identifying genes within the genome. He is concerned with constructing computational tools to understand cell functioning at a molecular level. Green has created the program Phred, which manages the data generated by the Human Genome Project and which is being used to help determine the most common variations in human DNA. Green’s laboratory is working to construct a gene-annotated genome sequence. His lab has modified the number of genes thought to be in the human genome—it is substantially fewer than had been previously believed.
Green spoke at the 68th Cold Spring Harbor Symposium focused on the Genome of Homo Sapiens.