Elbert Branscomb on The Human Genome Project: Involvement of the Department of Energy
  Elbert Branscomb     Biography    
Recorded: 30 May 2003

Well, there is a—part of the answer to that, I think, is conjectural because there is motive and there is rationale in all of this, and the two are often quite disparate. There was a justification in terms of DeLisi’s realization that the DOE’s long history of investing in the problem of trying to understand the injury to the human genome, or the risk to humans through genetic injury; what was called genetic toxicology at the time. And starting with their excuse for existence, in part which was the injurious effects of radiation on DNA. That had not progressed meaningfully or in the large part was not a useful undertaking. And his conviction was that we had to essentially go back and understand biology a little more deeply before we attempted to try it make a practical or useful connection between radiation exposure and radiation risk. This came out of a growing realization that the use of model organisms in exposure studies was invalid as a means of predicting human risk. It was invalid in part because we couldn’t afford to do exposures at anything like the low levels that people were actually exposed to, and that where the exposure levels of interest, and in part because there was so much disagreement in the toxicological assays between how model organisms responded; how a mouse responded or a rat responded or different strains even that it was clear that you couldn’t just in a facile way extrapolate from any of this. And also that it was not teaching any of us anything about biology.

I think it was mostly just his desire to change gears rather dramatically, and to try to do something important. And there after all had already been quite a vigorous discussion about the idea of sequencing the human genome. It was not his invention to do it. But I think it’s fair to say as Robert Cooke-Deegan has, in my view, very accurately recorded in his book on the history of the early genome project, that there was a pretty uniform rejection of this idea by the wise, which is a touchstone for a general metaphor here, I think. But anyway, this was not a good idea in the minds of almost of the respected thinkers of the time.

And so in a certain sense it took a rogue agency and someone like the Department of Energy in this context, rogue in this context, to start it. And as Jim Watson has said on public stages quite a few times, this was greeted by all of the real biologists as a disaster, in part because, you know, even if the project—it was timely to start the effort. This was absolutely the wrong set of people to do it. And I think I’m paraphrasing him correctly to say that his recounting of this is, so then we tried to stop it, then it turned out that we didn’t have the political power to stop it at the time. So then we had to co-op it. And so we did. And that, I think, agrees with a more careful and more detailed history, a la Cooke-Deegan, and with my memory of the history, and in my view, was right. I mean it was essential that it be—that this strange series of events actually go that way. Nonetheless, I think had there not been the charge from stage left by this part of the U.S. federal government that has little warrant to be doing anything in biology, had certainly at the time, much less anything very important or fundamental to sort of force it into motion. Force the hand of everyone. This very important thing would have been delayed by quite a bit. So anyway, in my view, it was thought that the DOE had—that this was a large project that required interdisciplinary efforts, and it required large organizational structures and that was something that DOE thought it could argue that it could put forward on the table. And whereas I think it’s true that that’s what it required, that was not until very late what DOE actually managed to do. The promise of what DOE might be able to do in this regard was not fulfilled in my view very significantly until, to a relatively modest effect, rather late in the whole process.

Elbert Branscomb received his B.A. in physics from Reed College (1957) and his Ph.D. in Theoretical Physics from Syracuse University (1964). In 1964 he joined Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) as a theoretical physicist and became a senior biomedical scientist in 1969. In 1986, when the Department of Energy (DOE) initiated a program to map and sequence the human genome, he assumed responsibility for the computational and mathematical component of LLNL's human genome program. In 1996 Dr. Branscomb was named the Director of the DOE's Joint Genome Institute. Since November of 2000, he has held the position of Chief Scientist, US DOE Genome Program. In this capacity, he assists the DOE's Office of Biological and Environmental Research in the furtherance of its genomics-related research programs. In recognition of his scientific accomplishments, he was awarded the Edward Teller Fellowship in 2001.