Michael Ashburner on Collaboration with Celera
  Michael Ashburner     Biography    
Recorded: 31 May 2003

There’s been an annual genome meeting here for many years. And in 1998, and there also has been since 1996, I think, there has been an international human sequencing meeting, basically not science, but a collaborator’s meeting. That meeting was first held in Bermuda in, I think, 1996 maybe 1995. And the Bermuda meeting was very important because it came up with the so-called Bermuda Principles on Data Release. And Craig agreed to that. He denies it now, but I sat opposite him in a hotel in Hamilton, Bermuda when John Sulston and Bob Waterston enunciated what are now known as the Bermuda Principles on Data Release. Michael Morgan, who was the senior program administrator at the Wellcome Trust who was funding the U.K. part of the human sequence, asked for a vote, everyone had to raise their hands if they agreed with these principles. And Craig raised his hand. I was sitting opposite him. And he denies it, but he did. So in 1998 he announced the formation of this company which later was called Celera because he claimed he was frustrated at the rate at which the public sector was sequencing the human genome. And also at that time, ABI (Applied Biosystems) were just about to make available their first capillary sequences. Craig is well known to be an entrepreneur. So there was outrage when he made this announcement for two reasons; first, that anyone could sequence a human genome and sell that sequence, I mean and do it commercially; there was also, I think, a major worry at that time that Craig’s announcement might undermine the public effort and thirdly, that Craig had announced that he was going to do this by the whole genome shotgun technique, which hitherto had not been used for any genome larger than one or two megabase bacterium. Many people thought that sequencing the human genome or any large complex genome by whole genome shotgun was simply impossible. People like Phil Green and many other people said it simply could not be done technically.

So Craig announced that and he announced—well, he didn’t announce—but he indicated that as a proof of principle of sequencing a complex genome by whole genome shotgun, and he was going to sequence a model organism and he indicated to Gerry that that was going to be drosophila. And that posed major problems because we had two publicly funded efforts to sequencing the drosophila by conventional clone base sequencing. [There was] a big operation in the States in Berkeley, a small one in Europe and we were collaborating.

And Gerry said that he had two choices; one was to be raped and the other was to lie down and enjoy it. Yeah, so he took the decision very quickly to collaborate with Craig. And he was very much criticized for that. There then followed really six months of negotiation with Craig in which the terms of the collaboration between what was called Celera and the public domain. And that was only resolved—I can tell you exactly when that was resolved—that was resolved on December 7, 1998. I don’t know why I should remember the date because on December 6th, which was a Sunday, we had a meeting with Craig at Celera in Gaithersburg, Maryland. It was Gerry, Bill Gilbart and myself from the kind of public side, Craig, Gene Myers probably Mark Adams. And we met at Celera on a Sunday morning, and basically came to an agreement of how we could collaborate with Celera.

We then drove to Lansdowne, Virginia for an N.I.H. [National Institutes of Health] backdrop on a Monday. And Gerry spent Monday negotiating with Francis Collins and—my memory is going—Harold Varmus, who was then the head of N.I.H. and came back with essentially the outline of an agreement, a formal agreement. And that agreement was signed in January 1999. It said that essentially that Celera would deposit their sequence in the public domain and that allowed us to collaborate with him.

But even then no one thought he could do it. Then we went to Celera in 1998, in December 1998 the Celera building which they had leased or bought, I don’t know, was basically a shell. The only inhabitable rooms were Craig’s office and a small conference room. And they did a wonderful job. They got that company so that by August 1999, in essentially about seven months from actually getting a lab going, they finished the shotgun sequence.

Michael Ashburner, a leader in Drosophila Genetics and bioinformatics, received his B.A. (1964), M.A. (1968), Ph.D. (1968) and Sc.D. (1978) from the University of Cambridge, where he is currently professor of Biology in the Department of Genetics and a Professional Fellow of Churchill College.

He has been the joint head of European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI), of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) and was co-founder of Flybase, the primary online database for Drosophila genetics and molecular biology, the Gene Ontology Consortium, an effort to coordinate biological databases through a defined taxonomy of gene function, and the Crete Meetings, a bi-annual event focusing on the developmental and molecular biology of Drosophila melanogaster.

Among many honors, he is the recipient of the G.J. Mendel Medal (Czech Republic 1998) and the George W. Beadle Medal (Genetics Society of America 1999).

Michael Ashburner