David Botstein on Opposition to the HGP
  David Botstein     Biography    
Recorded: 28 May 2003

My recollection is that the scientific arguments against doing the genome were only scientific arguments against doing the genome thoughtlessly. There were people who really proposed to have a big factory in one place in the country where they would use the then current methods, hire the thirty thousand people that it would take to do the genome by hand, as it were, and just go for it.

I think the scientific arguments against that were common sense and persuasive. Nobody really believed that you should do that except for a few zealots. However, the compromise plan I think there was no scientific objection to, the objections were economic. It might cost more or cost too much or cost some other area of science too much or something like that. There were some technical issues about whether you could get across the repeats, but I don’t think anybody—and whether you could ever actually assemble the whole thing and those arguments continued to the bitter end. The “sequence first” folks still haven’t made their case. And the map first and sequence later was the way the public effort was done. It was what was proposed and it worked. And I think that most—most of the scientific argument was against the sort of thoughtless optimism that you could just do it. And Maynard Olson was really the hero of that. He was the one who in the committee was the most credible about how difficult it was going to be. And even he came out with the view that it could and would be done.

There were, of course, optimists who believe that as soon as you saw the sequence of a gene it would instantly bring enlightenment. There were very few serious people—and all of the people on the committee were serious people who thought that. Everyone understood the power of the model systems to tell you about some of the very basic genes, and I think there was no real concern that it wouldn’t be useful.

David Botstein is a prominent geneticist whose advocacy for gene mapping was crucial in laying the groundwork for the Human Genome Project. Botstein received his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan for his research on bacteriophage synthesis. As a member of the MIT faculty he continued working with phage P22 DNA and discovered many bacterial and yeast genes. He served as Vice President of Science at Genentech before becoming professor at the Stanford School of Medicine where he led in sequencing the first large eucaryotic genome.

On July 1, 2003 he was appointed as Director of the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics at Princeton University. At Princeton he will continue to expound upon genome projects, explore the relationship between genes within the genome, and uncover how diseases like cancer alter the expression of genes.

Botstein researched at the CSHL while on sabbatical from 1974-1975. At the 1986 CSHL symposium on Human Genetics he played a crucial role in advocating for the Human Genome Project. While serving on the National Research Council Committee he emphasized that money be laid aside to fund the sequencing of other simpler organisms with which the human genome can be compared. Like Jim Watson, he has passionately supported the Human Genome Project since its inception.