Recorded: 08 May 2008
It’s absolutely correct that I got the phone call and that alerted us to the Celera announcement. I think the proximity to the Trust application is wrong. The proximity of the application and Cold Spring Harbor is absolutely correct. And the thing was that Craig came to the meeting the day before the meeting opened and spoke to the American funded principle investigators who were funded through the National Institutes of Human Genome Research and the Department of Energy and suggested that they should stop sequencing the human and switch to sequencing the mouse.
So coming back then. So there was the announcement that Celera was going to get going and I think that was probably in March. So, the Cold Spring Harbor meeting was May and during that week the Wellcome Trust was considering an application from John Sulston and his colleagues to do this. Just prior to the meeting the day before the meeting opened there was a pre-meeting of all of the American lab leaders who were involved in the human genome sequencing project. I don’t know whether Craig invited himself or if he was invited by Francis Collins, but he came. I obviously wasn’t here, so it’s secondhand. But reputedly he told them to stop sequencing the human genome because Celera was going to do it twice as fast and for a tenth of the money and they should do the mouse. And this of course led to great despair.
The next day we had the meeting at the Wellcome Trust and the Governors approved the award of money to do a third of the genome. They empowered John and I to fly – we hadn’t planned to come to Cold Spring Harbor – to fly to Cold Spring Harbor and Jim arranged for me and John to address the meeting the next day at what happened to be the human sequencing part of the meeting – so this was the Thursday by which time Craig had left. We thought that Craig was going to stay, but he had left. And so I addressed them and I said that whatever the National Institutes of Health did, the Wellcome Trust was committed to increasing funding. If it were necessary the Wellcome Trust would consider taking on the whole burden because unless the human genome sequence was in the public domain as far as we were concerned, it wasn’t available it wasn’t done. So that cheered people up a little, I think it’s fair to say.
Oh, well, so John and I left on the Wednesday and of course so we arrived in Wednesday evening 10 o’clock or something at Kennedy, came here and the place was in chaos. The only way to describe it was that the scientists were running around like chickens that had had their heads chopped off. They were totally freaked out because they thought Craig was just going to completely wipe them all out. I had a meeting, a prior meeting, I can’t remember the meeting- there was a meeting with not only Francis Collins but I think the director of the NIH whose name I know very well and am grasping for at the moment. Harold Varmus. But in essence, the atmosphere changed dramatically. John and I received a standing ovation and everybody got very, very cheerful. To cut a long story short, the NIH continued to get funding to do it. But it’s arguable that if it hadn’t been this coincidence of the Wellcome Trust funding, it may not have gone that way.
Well, of course, we didn’t know what we were coming to. Jane Rogers from the Sanger Center - I think, David Bentley had come the day before because we had the report about Craig talking to the NIH so we had got a report back that people were pretty distressed so that we knew that we had to do something – it’s a shame that I don’t have a greater clarity of memory of the exact events. But John and I were for those sorts of purposes were a great partnership because I got perhaps more emotional than I should have done. But John could talk the talk with the scientists . John, of course, at that time was recognized as the leader with Bob Waterston in large scale sequencing. So people would listen to him. And of course there was a doubt at that time as to whether or not Craig’s business plan in terms of selling the genomic information whether that was a viable business plan.
And there were also scientific doubts to whether in any way his shotgun sequencing on such a large genome would actually work. And, of course, nobody knows whether it did or didn't because our data was freely available the framework was there and he could do his - Craig would argue very differently I’m sure and has done. But its one of those situations where’s there’s really isn’t an appropriate control so you can tell.
Michael Morgan, currently professor emeritus of biology, specialized in plant ecology and bioclimatology. He earned his BA from Butler University, MS and Ph.D form University of Illinois. He received the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Founders's Association Award for Excellence in Teaching and Sabbatical during the 1991-92 academic year with the Conservation Research Group, School of Forestry, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand.
Michael Morgan is a member of American Association for the Advancement of Science, Ecological Society of America, American Institute of Biological Sciences, Society for Conservation Biology and Natural Areas Association.
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