Recorded: 31 May 2003
The agreement we had with Craig along with Celera was that after the assembly of the sequence there would be a deposition of the sequence in GenBank. And then on the publication of annotated sequence, the annotations would be deposited in GenBank. So what happened was that in late October 1999, I got an email from somebody, one of my colleagues, Alan Robinson at the EBI (European Bioinformatics Institute,) who asked if I had seen the EBI website. And I said, no. I went immediately and looked. And Craig—or rather, Celera—had released the drosophila sequence to a website at the NCBI (National Center for Biotechnology Information,) but not in GenBank. It’s a technical difference, but a very important difference. Moreover, the access to the—there was a long paragraph about the conditions about on which the sequence could be used. And this clearly broke the agreement, an absolute break in the agreement. So I’m not well known to be calm under these circumstances and I completely got very angry. And immediately phoned Francis Collins and got him out of a meeting and phoned almost everyone I could find. And I wrote an email because I had the email addresses of every invitee to the jamboree because I had been organizing it. So I drafted an email to everyone in jamboree saying that it is cancelled because of this breach of the agreement by—and sent a copy of that—I didn’t send it out. But I sent that to Craig, and said, you know, unless I hear from you very soon I am going to send this email out and call the whole thing off.
Gerry couldn’t be reached. It turned out he was on a plane to Pittsburgh or somewhere. And so for a day, really throughout twenty-four hours, it was total crisis. But eventually, Gerry managed to, by talking to members of the scientific advisory board of Celera, technically Rich Roberts and Arnie Levine, the data was withdrawn from this protected website at NCBI and put into GenBank. The public line was that it was a mistake, you know, and the people in the NCBI didn’t understand what was going on, who had facilitated this. I was very angry with them. And the public line was that this was simply done by a person at Celera.
No, I don’t think so. But it was sorted out. And it’s actually the—probably the most tiring six months of my life because we originally had planned to finish the annotation and write it all up by Christmas. And it came pretty clear that it was simply impossible, physically impossible. And after the jamboree I was coming back to Washington every week almost and then I got very ill over Christmas with pneumonia and I came back too early, and I collapsed at the end of that. I literally went to bed for three months and didn’t talk to anybodyy. But eventually it was finished and it was published in Science in March, 2000. I mean overall, I think, I mean except for this initial problem about data deposition, I mean, Celera were terrific. I mean during the jamboree they were—they paid for the jamboree! Mind you, they got a wonderful free consultancy out of it because they learned how to annotate from all the people whose work that was done. But they were very professional, very helpful. They were very, very good.
Michael Ashburner, a leader in Drosophila Genetics and bioinformatics, received his B.A. (1964), M.A. (1968), Ph.D. (1968) and Sc.D. (1978) from the University of Cambridge, where he is currently professor of Biology in the Department of Genetics and a Professional Fellow of Churchill College.
He has been the joint head of European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI), of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) and was co-founder of Flybase, the primary online database for Drosophila genetics and molecular biology, the Gene Ontology Consortium, an effort to coordinate biological databases through a defined taxonomy of gene function, and the Crete Meetings, a bi-annual event focusing on the developmental and molecular biology of Drosophila melanogaster.
Among many honors, he is the recipient of the G.J. Mendel Medal (Czech Republic 1998) and the George W. Beadle Medal (Genetics Society of America 1999).