Maynard Olson on The Human Genome Project: Public & Private Competition
  Maynard Olson     Biography    
Recorded: 01 Jun 2003

Oh, of course, it [Celera Genomics] accelerated by a year or two, it accelerated the acquisition of genome sequence. I acknowledge that in my JMB paper. So there’s no human activity that cannot be accelerated. So, you know if you are building a bridge and its supposed to be done in 2006 and you somehow decide that it’s suddenly become an immense social priority to get it done in 2004 at great costs in the opportunity costs, dislocation costs and so forth you can accelerate that project. You stop doing lots of other things and you do that. That’s what happened here. I challenge absolutely the contention that it had any real scientific benefit. And I think actually is may have well had some negative scientific effects. Who’s to say that getting the human genome sequenced two years earlier was some, you know, enormous benefit to science, to society. It was a contrived competition that just simply fed the public’s fascination with such things and generated within the scientific community more interest than it should have.

But you know it happened and we had as it occurred had the center held of this system. That was not a foregone conclusion. There could have been a much worse outcome than happened. But there was enough pulling together. The Wellcome Trust decision to increase support to the Sanger Center so that they could move ahead more rapidly with a third of the genome, set a very strong example, Congress actually behaved extremely well. Scientists love to complain about Congress. In this instance it was scientists who behaved badly. Congress actually behaved well. The—I think politicians actually understand this kind of thing. You know, they’re used to this hype and manipulation of the press and so forth. And I think, you know, they say this for what it was. They didn’t flinch about continuing to support the public project. So the thing held together and actually it had a good outcome.

Maynard V. Olson received his Bachelor’s degree in chemistry from California Institute of Technology and Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry from Stanford University (1970). After five years on the chemistry faculty at Dartmouth College, he shifted his research efforts to molecular genetics at Washington University in St Louis and the University of Washington in Seattle. He now serves as Director of the University of Washington Human Genome Center, Professor of Genetics and Medicine, and Adjunct Professor of Computer Science & Engineering.

A pioneer in genomic research, Dr. Olson launched the ultimately successful effort to construct a detailed physical map of the yeast genome in 1979. He also led efforts to develop yeast artificial chromosomes (YACs) that allowed for the study of large portions of the human genome and proved invaluable in the tracking of disease-related genes, and he introduced STS-content mapping which led to the first physical maps of whole human chromosomes.

Dr. Olson is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and has been awarded the Genetics Society of America Medal, the City of Medicine Award, and the Gairdner Foundation International Award for his scientific contributions to the Human Genome Project.

Influenced by Watson’s book, Molecular Biology of the Gene, Olsen started working with the genome in the 1970’s. He met Jim Watson when they both served on Bruce Albert’s Committee of the National Research Council. Olsen also helped to organize several genome meetings at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory during the 1980s.