Bruce Roe on Competition in Science
  Bruce Roe     Biography    
Recorded: 29 May 2003

Oh, competition is the basis of the whole free enterprise system. It’s the basis of America, and the strong survive kind of thing. I think competition is a very, very good thing. In fact, I would say my good friend Craig Venter, but he would probably disallow that I was his good friend, but we’ve been friends for years. We’ve known each other for quite a number of years. I knew him when he was at the NIH. And I think that the competition from Celera really, really moved the human genome project ahead of schedule and under budget. It put the pressure on Congress. It put the pressure on the Human Genome Institute. It put the pressure on the scientists. And it led to really a concentrated effort, okay. And every three years or five years, whenever I have to write grants, okay and right now I’m in the throes of doing that—it seems like a never-ending battle writing grants. But, you know, that’s competition. And if I’m going to propose how to do something that’s five years old and boring, you know, I haven’t grown and I haven’t expanded, so that competition is a good thing. One thing about this project though, it’s sort of like when I walk into the local Italian bakery here in Syosset, you know. I go in there and it takes me ten minutes to figure out what I’m going to buy because it’s so many cookies and so little time. And I just don’t know which one to buy, but then I always end up with a cannoli and some riscotta regina or something like that, you know. But that’s what the human genome project is. There’s so many genes and so little time. And so that competition is a good thing. I think what’s bad about the competition is some really excellent people that were here in 1990 and in the beginning of the genome project rather, were not funded at different rounds of funding. And these are really top people, but they for various reasons were not continued on in the project and I think that’s a shame because I think the project has narrowed down to a few very large centers, which is good for production; but I think we still need to have specialized people involved in the genome project. Maybe with some of the work there’s coming now with the encode project and the encyclopedia of the human genome. Because what we have today is we have a dictionary of the human genome. When we had a working draft we had a dictionary where some of the words or most of the words were misspelled, but we know the rough—you know, it was house, but you didn’t know if it was h-o-u-s-e or h-o-u-c-e, okay. Now that we’ve got the completed genome, we know how to spell house correctly, okay. And we know how to spell these words correctly. But we only have the definitions of half the words. So there are many pages in the dictionary of life that have words but we don’t what the meaning of the words is. We know that that gene is present in humans and in mice and in frogs and in fish, but we still don’t know what it’s doing, okay. And so our job now is to find out what these genes are doing, and how these are interacting with each other. How to gene products. And how does it make a whole cell? How does it work? How does our brain work? Well, it works because you have genes, and that genes make proteins eventually or make RNA’s that do things. Some of them make proteins and some do other stable RNA functions within the cell. But how do they work? How do they do their thing? That’s what we’re trying to do now is that we’re trying to complete the dictionary and then go on to write the encyclopedia. And to me that’s the most amazing thing about the project is that this is job security for my students for the next fifty years.

Bruce Roe is a George Lynn Cross Research Professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Oklahoma. He graduated with a Ph.D in biochemistry from the University of Western Michigan and received a National Institutes of Health Postdoctoral Fellowship to research at SUNY Stony Brook. He spent his 1978-79 sabbatical at Fred Sanger’s lab, where he helped develop the renowned method of DNA sequencing currently used today.

Roe is founding director of the Advanced Center for Genomic Technology (ACGT) at the U. of Oklahoma, one of the first large-scale sequencing facilities in the US. At present, the ACGT innovates computational and robotic methods to analyze DNA sequence results and is currently determining the nucleotide sequence of five microbial genomes. In 1999, Roe’s research led to the elucidation and publication of the complete sequence of human chromosome 22. This was the first human chromosome to be sequenced in its entirely.

He has attended genome meetings and symposia at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory for over 20 years.