Recorded: 03 Mar 2006
When I was at D.O.E. we never got tired of telling the world that the D.O.E. started the Human Genome Project. And we were always very irked by the fact that we couldn’t convince very many people that that was the case. So that’s why I’m smiling. It brings back a lot of interesting memories.
I landed, of course, in this program, which was called Biological and Environmental Research that in a sense embraced or adopted this new effort to study the connection between the rise of greenhouse gases and climate change. As it turned out this was the same program that also had as its core a fairly significant biological sciences program. A program that dated back to the dawn of the atomic era. 1947, in fact. And I know that because that’s the date I was born, the year I was born.
That program was started back then because there was some prescient people that were very concerned that despite the promise of nuclear energy, energy “too cheap to meter” for some people who may remember that statement, there was also concern that radiation even at low levels could damage human biology and there was a need to start a research program to study that connection. In fact, for decades that program tried very, very hard to understand that connection without very much success because biology was very primitive. The tools were very primitive. The way things were done was almost scary. You know, The Island of Dr. Moreau kind of thing where you irradiated animals and you looked at what happened and you tried to infer what would happen to human beings without really understanding the real basics. In fact, it was because of the frustration from decades of unsuccessful research in this area that prompted one of my predecessors, Charles DeLisi, to propose to sequence the human genome. And that was in 1986 –I had just joined, in fact – as a way to get to this issue of understanding what radiation does to human biology. In retrospect, of course, that was a very, very narrow argument why you would want to sequence the human genome. And I’m sure if Charles DeLisi was here he would also say that it wasn’t really the reason or the only reason. It was, in fact, the excuse or the opportunity to justify such a wonderful project. Such a project that was so different than what mainstream biology was pursuing so that it could be launched.
And the reason it was an opportunity also was that because this program, Biological and Environmental Research, that I ended up heading for eleven years, was in the bosom of a larger research effort in the Office of Science of the Department of Energy that was dominated by the macho science, you know, the physical sciences; the high energy physicist, the nuclear physicist, the material scientists, the chemical scientists, the computer scientists. Scientists who for decades were pretty comfortable proposing large projects that involved big investments, multi-billion dollar investments in machines that would smash atoms together or, in a sense, explore the structure of matter with very expensive tools. Something that biologists, of course, were very timid and very shy and would never dream of that their field could ever command such huge resources. So I’m giving you the origins of the Human Genome Project; why it was proposed and how and what was the justification.
I attended some of the meetings. You know, the office at the time, you know the size has not changed very much. We were about forty or forty-five souls in the entire office. And as I said I was on the environmental side of that particular office but there were many meetings where all of us attended. You know, despite my immersion into the development of a large climate science program, I could not help but be present in the birth of this research effort. And, in fact, I can remember sort of starting to be more and more seduced by both excitement and the promise of this other project. You know, and I felt like a kid in a candy store. Here I was given an opportunity to start a huge project in climate science, something that I was always very enamored with. You know, having lots of money to fund big projects whether they were field programs out in the field or around the world, or fund modeling efforts of climate science and so on, or impact studies or the study of the carbon cycle. But at the same time all of a sudden becoming more and more aware of this very intriguing idea that was being developed of sequencing, you know, the human genome. You know, when I first got there I had some vague idea what a genome was. It didn’t take long. Just attending a few meetings and we did have seminars once a week. I got the basics. Then just this notion of sequencing, you know, the three billion base pairs of human DNA without the technology that we had at the time by itself was a fascinating topic. Putting aside what it meant biologically, but just as a research effort. You know, you’ve got something that is so small. You don’t have much of the technology and you want to get that particular sequence. It was very intriguing, very exciting and I was seduced.
We’re talking now—I came to the D.O.E. in 1986, which was when I first became exposed to the project because that was the year, in fact, that Charles DeLisi first proposed it. ’87 of course when the project started developing with some initial resources and I remember meetings in Germantown in the conference rooms where we all had to get together for example. Here individual program mangers who were describing various proposals that had been submitted, that had then subsequently been subjected to peer review, and then there were recommendations from the program managers and a vote on the part of those present whether it was a good idea or not. It was not the final say about the funding of that proposal. But it was another sort of vote of confidence for a proposal. And it was an opportunity, it was an opportunity for me with an activity at the time that was mostly on the environmental side to sit through some of these meetings and hear for the first time the details of the specific proposals. People that had put forward different ideas about how to approach sequencing. Some of the very early ideas about how to create databases. GenBank, for example, started at Los Alamos and it started as an idea of how you create a specific database that can store biological information as opposed to all the previous databases that were used for problems in physics.
I confess that many of the things that I was hearing at the time, you know, I didn’t really have a clue. So I would have to ask a lot of question, or I would wait afterwards and maybe capture a program manager and ask him what he meant by that term or this expression, and so on.
Ari Patrinos, currently is a president of Synthetic Genomics, Inc. He is best known for his leading roles in the development of the U.S. Global Change Research Program and the U.S. Human Genome Project. He earned his undergraduate degree from the National Technical University of Athens and Ph.D. in mechanical engineering and astronautical sciences from Northwestern University.
Patrinos has worked in Department of Energy (DOE) Laboratory system since 1973. His research area includes biomedical engineering, atmospheric turbulence, environmental chemistry, climate change, and statistical methods. In 1995 he became the Associate Director for Biological and Environmental Research in the DOE Office of Science and was responsible for human and microbial genome programs, structural biology, nuclear medicine and health effects, global environmental change. He helped create the DOE's Joint Genome Institute (JGI) in 1997 and developed the DOE's Genomes to Life Program.
He is a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the American Geophysical Union, and a Fellow of the American Meteorological Society.