Recorded: 02 Mar 2006
I think the most important thing that happened there from our point of view was I had a good chance to discuss with Gerry Rubin whether he was willing to collaborate with us on doing the Drosophila genome. I mean we knew that a lot of people that had proven in the past that they weren’t receptive to new ideas and new thinking. I mean some of these—all the people were in the room that turned down Gene Myers’s grant. They turned down, you know, our approach to sequence Haemophilus. Some of the biggest critics of ESTs were in the room. But I guess I’m always viewed as naïve because I keep thinking the best aspect of human behavior will come out, and with most people it does. You give them a chance and it does. We had an approach that intellectually made absolute sense. It may not have made emotional sense to people. It may not have made political sense to them. But intellectually it was pretty clear-cut. So we just outlined what we were going to do and outlined here’s the new methods that we were developing and going to do it with and that we had appealed for people to cooperate with us and try and make sure that it worked and maybe moved forward the genome project quite substantially. We didn’t present it as here’s what we are doing, but a lot of people read it that way. I think with all the emotions involved there’s probably nothing that I would have said that wouldn’t have upset some people. Everybody in the room knew about it ahead of time. They knew what we were going to say.
Before we ever announced anything about the formation of Celera and the intention to sequence the human genome very quickly, we contacted Jim Watson to ask him to be part of it. To be a key advisor and to help interface with the community to help make it go faster. He indicated that he felt that he couldn’t do that because he had just testified before Congress just a week or so before saying nothing was new. There was no new technology. Nothing was going to change. I think he was just embarrassed because he was not in the know about what was happening at the forefront of the field that he was involved with. And so he said no, but not only did he say no, he said he wanted it kept a secret that we ever approached him so he could act surprised like everybody else. I mean, one of the things about him is—you know, I think he is a brilliant guy, but he has this Machiavellian streak to try and control and manipulate things. So all these people knew well in advance. Francis Collins knew well in advance. The head of NIH knew in advance. We had these conversations. I talked with several people in the genome community, David Cox, Gerry Rubin, others. So there was no surprise when we came there, but I was surprised by the degree of hostility versus: here’s a new idea, let’s try a new idea. You know, hat’s how science moves forward. You try new ideas. If they don’t work, you know, that’s pretty clear cut. Especially something at this scale. If they do work that revolutionizes what happens. Nobody wanted to do the experiment.
I mean it wasn’t critical. I mean we wanted to have cooperation. It would have been nice to have cooperation. We didn’t need money from them. We didn’t need anything from them. It would have been a pure, “let’s collaborate and do this.” And it’s the sort of thing if, you know, so many people were sure that it wouldn’t work. But some have said in retrospect, that they knew at the time that it would work. I don’t know why then they weren’t more honest scientifically at the time. I think some people just, they didn’t want to hear it. It changed what they were doing.
You know, it’s like, any other field where there’s a major breakthrough that changes something from fifteen years to a couple of years. That’s a big change. People’s jobs were possibly threatened, their careers. Somebody else might get credit for what they wanted. You know, there are so many different aspects to it. But there were also some extremely bright people in the room and I think some, if it wasn’t this sort of lynch mob mentality, probably would have responded very differently on their own. The pressure for the people that have the money is very strong pressure in science.
All we did at Cold Spring Harbor was to tell the other members—it was going to be a gathering of people of the public genome community. We thought it was a good chance to look them in the eye and tell them all face to face what we were doing and get responses. That was the only reason why it was there. There was nothing significant other than people were gathered in one place. The timing was good. But prior to this meeting I had meetings with Harold Varmus, the NIH director, and Francis Collins. And they initially, you know, really talked about having a cooperative effort. Even the government switching to do the mouse genome so we could interpret the human genome faster.
There were a lot of discussions and initially responses from Harold and Francis were very positive. And I told Harold that we were going to do a test project first to make sure that all the algorithms worked because nobody had been on this scale before at all. And I told him that I wanted to sequence the Drosophila genome because I think it was the most important of the model organisms. He tried to talk me out of Drosophila, wanting us to do another worm, comparing it to C. elegans. But, I think, I’ve had a prior history with Drosophila. I think Drosophila historically has been the whole start of genetic mapping. The first genes were mapped, the first traits in Drosophila chromosomes. Historically it was very important and scientifically, I had worked on the nervous system and Drosophila making discovering about new types of receptor genes there. So I had no interest in worms. I liked fruit flies. And I knew scientifically it was the single most important project out there. In fact, possibly more important than human. I think mouse was also more important than human; because scientists use drosophila, they use mice. Very few scientists actually work on human. So there’s a difference between the political value and the true scientific value.
But at this meeting, it was my first chance after meeting with Varmus to talk to Gerry Rubin. So I asked him to leave the room with me to see if he was interested in collaborating on the Drosophila genome. I had tremendous respect for Gerry. We met once or twice before. I think his lab was doing just some of the best work in the field. We didn’t announce publicly we were doing Drosophila because I wanted to talk to him first because I didn’t want to damage his funding or damage his project. We were hoping for cooperation. Within thirty seconds he said absolutely, he would work with us.
And that ended up being one of the best scientific collaborations in history, you know. People constantly putting pressure on him not to collaborate. They were using World War II analogies and, you know, everybody jumped on him because he was working with us. And treated as though he was working with the enemy. Because we had a new idea all of a sudden we were the enemy. These are pretty bizarre scientific concepts. But, you know, Gerry is a brilliant thinker and a true scientist and he wasn’t in it for the political maneuvering and so he immediately accepted the scientific collaboration. And I think what we put together over the next year, I think, historically speaks for itself, you know. We sequenced the Drosophila genome in four months. C. elegans took ten years and it was actually better than the first—the first draft of Drosophila was better than the first draft of C. elegans and went on to be everything that led to doing human, mouse, dog – everything from then on.
J. Craig Venter, biologist and genomic research pioneer, was born in Salt Lake City, Utah in 1946. Following military service in Vietnam, he studied biochemistry as an undergraduate at the University of California, San Diego, where he also received a Ph.D. in Physiology and Pharmacology in 1975. He joined the faculty of the Medical School of State University of New York at Buffalo in 1976, joining its affiliated Roswell Park Cancer Institute in 1982 as Professor and Associate Chief Cancer Research Scientist. Beginning in 1982, and for the next decade, Dr. Venter headed various sections of NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
In 1992 he founded The Institute for Genomic Research (known as TIGR,) where he and colleagues became the first to successfully sequence the genome of an entire organism. Dr. Venter's Celera Genomics, founded in 1998, used a strategy known as the whole genome shotgun approach to compete with the publicly-funded Human Genome Project, which served to accelerate the mapping of the whole human genome by 2000. Dr. Venter's current venture, the J. Craig Venter Institute, was formed in 2006, from the merger of several predecessor enterprises. A leader in genomic research, the J. Craig Venter Institute announced in January 2008, the largest synthetically derived DNA structure, advancing it towards its goal of creating a living cell based on an entirely synthetic genome. In September 2007, the J. Craig Venter Institute announced the sequencing of Dr. Venter's genome, the first sequencing of an individual's genome.
Among Dr. Venter's numerous awards and honors are the American Academy of Microbiology Fellow (1997), the American Chemical Society, Division of Biochemical Technology David Perlman Memorial Lectureship Award (2000), and the U.S. State Department, Secretary's Open Forum Public Service Award (2001). Dr. Venter is a member of the American Society of Human Genetics, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Society of Microbiology, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.