Recorded: 03 Mar 2006
I was not involved in terms of the actual research. By that time I was mostly in the science management business. In the very early days I was fascinated by this notion of single molecule detection. If there was one area that I kind of focused on and talked to a lot of people and also tried to fund research in was such an approach. One that did not involve wet chemistry. We still haven’t gotten there by the way. We still don’t have it, but I think we will get to it. It’s almost within reach. At that time I was perhaps naïve thinking that with all this technology that already existed in the physical sciences, you know, all it would take is some small breakthrough where you could carry over that capability of doing single molecule detection to the DNA single molecule detection approach. My foray into that was not a very successful one. We funded several projects that didn’t really end up anyplace.
If there was one surprise to me with the Human Genome Project was that I always felt that success in the end would have been dependent not on small but significant incremental improvements to existing technology, but because of a breakthrough technology, a disruptive technology they say today, that would come in and overnight would revolutionize the way we did sequencing. Whereas we saw the task as a ten-year task it would become a few months. Well, it really became a few months. But it became a few months because we took an existing technology and we perfected it. We did small but very significant incremental changes in all aspects, from the development, from taking the DNA all the way to the output and the processing and the assembly. I never would have predicted that.
Well, there wasn’t very much sequencing done in the early days if you remember. So in some ways the sequencing took off when the capillary machines started becoming more efficient, in a way. For me, I mean, the difference happened when we abandoned the “onesys” and “twoseys” sequencing machines and the forty odd labs that were sequencing and made the tough, tough call of consolidating into a few sequencing centers. That was the most painful decision that the Human Genome Project ever made. It helped, of course, that at that time also we had the threat from Celera and Craig Venter, you know, that was a good kick in the pants to get better organized. Had that not happened, for example, we may still have been sequencing for all I know. That was the most painful decision. But I don’t think that stopping whatever sequencing was done back then would have made a big difference.
Well, I would also say that the physicists still, you know, the ones that are envious of our success. Envious of the kind of attention we command these days and how prominent genomics is, they still tell us that, you know, we really didn’t do what we were supposed to do. We weren’t smart enough to develop a technology that would make that revolution. Some of them are perhaps even trying to do that themselves.
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.