Maynard Olson on Surprises in the HGP
  Maynard Olson     Biography    
Recorded: 01 Jun 2003

There are a lot of things that surprised me about it. You know, history always looks so clear in retrospect, but not so clear in prospect done.

I thought that it went much more rapidly and much more smoothly than I could have imagined. And it did so for a whole bunch of reasons. I mean, the problem was enormous. It was an enormous problem. Not conceptually difficult but practically an immensely difficult problem. And we were basically just completely out matched if you think of this little beleaguered group of investigators that were going to go out and try to sequence the human genome. And the magnitude of what needed to be done. We were just mismatched. We didn’t have good enough techniques. We didn’t have any where near enough strong investigators. The whole computational infrastructure didn’t exist. Most of our ideas about how to proceed were wrong. There was no overall organization that we had any kind of experience with. There was just the idea of building one. The problems just seemed rather overwhelming but, of course, exhilarating. I was never pessimistic although I was always restraining people that said, you know, this is going to be easy. We can do this in a few years. All we need is a great big center. You know, it worked for, just routine, kind of turn the crank.

I knew better because I’d spent seven years working on the yeast map and it actually still wasn’t really done but we’d finally, I think, you know after seven years people could assume that we were going to get it done. And I knew in detail the Cambridge experience with the worm.

So starting from there, I saw—you know, I think that if you had asked me how long it was going to take I would have been off by a decade or so. And even then would have felt I was being optimistic. Because again I just couldn’t see the path. And I couldn’t see the path because the path wasn’t there. A lot of other people thought that they could see the path but if you go back and read in detail what they said, that didn’t turn out to be the path. Those were a lot of dead ends.

Maynard V. Olson received his Bachelor’s degree in chemistry from California Institute of Technology and Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry from Stanford University (1970). After five years on the chemistry faculty at Dartmouth College, he shifted his research efforts to molecular genetics at Washington University in St Louis and the University of Washington in Seattle. He now serves as Director of the University of Washington Human Genome Center, Professor of Genetics and Medicine, and Adjunct Professor of Computer Science & Engineering.

A pioneer in genomic research, Dr. Olson launched the ultimately successful effort to construct a detailed physical map of the yeast genome in 1979. He also led efforts to develop yeast artificial chromosomes (YACs) that allowed for the study of large portions of the human genome and proved invaluable in the tracking of disease-related genes, and he introduced STS-content mapping which led to the first physical maps of whole human chromosomes.

Dr. Olson is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and has been awarded the Genetics Society of America Medal, the City of Medicine Award, and the Gairdner Foundation International Award for his scientific contributions to the Human Genome Project.

Influenced by Watson’s book, Molecular Biology of the Gene, Olsen started working with the genome in the 1970’s. He met Jim Watson when they both served on Bruce Albert’s Committee of the National Research Council. Olsen also helped to organize several genome meetings at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory during the 1980s.