Michael Ashburner on Mechanics of the Human Genome Project
  Michael Ashburner     Biography    
Recorded: 31 May 2003

Both formally and informally, N.H.G.R.I [National Human Genome Research Institute] put in for the human genome project—put in quality control measures. For example, some of the clones whose sequences had been determined, but then re-sequenced by other labs as a direct check in quality. But I think the major—I think that there was intense competition between the different sequencing centers, particularly among the big five. That is the Sanger in the U.K., the Whitehead, Wash U., Baylor and the Joint Genome Institute in the U.S. and Genoscope in France. The big centers were intensively competitive. They were competitive on the quality and they were competitive on the quantity. They all wanted to be the center that did the biggest chunk of it. And all the scientists are very good scientists and [they] want to do high quality science. They don’t want to do crap. And the point of that, I think the human genome sequence, is that it was very clear right from the beginning that the nature of the project was such that if a particular center was delivering very low quality sequence that would be found out very quickly. And it would be known in the community and the credibility of that center and the people who were running it would suffer. So, I think, that although there were independent quality checks done by the N.I.H. or by N.I.H.G.R.I, I think most of the quality assurance was actually self noted by the centers because they were highly motivated to do very high class work.

And it was a very interesting collaboration because you had this competitiveness, but then you had major coordination and collaboration between them. And I think Francis Collins in the U.S. and Michael Morgan who is his counterpart, with respect to the genome project, his counterpart in the U.K. actually did a very good job by kind of balancing the tensions within the project. You know, there were stages in the project when one center or other where people were very concerned about. I probably shouldn’t go on to some of this in public type actually.

I mean what has turned out to be one of the more successful sequencing centers, the Whitehead and Eric Lander. But in the very early days Eric was promising far more than he could deliver. And there was intense concern as to whether, in fact, Eric could actually deliver the sequence and the quality. And the, I think the first or the second, I can’t remember now, the quality assessment exercises done by N.H.G.R.I., the Whitehead’s quality was appalling. But Lander is a very, very bright and highly motivated guy and this was never made public it was kept in a fairly small community. He managed to build, in the long run, what is a first class center. But there was intense criticism of Eric, probably because Eric is not a shy, retiring man. You know, he has a degree of self confidence which is not possessed by everyone. But I think Eric recognized his peers. He didn’t want to be shown up by Bob Waterston or John Sulston, or heaven forbid, Richard Gibbs or Maynard Olson, as doing a bad job. So he’s highly motivated. So I think that whole section should be archived for twenty-years. But I think a lot of the quality came really from the internal motivation of the centers to do—and because they were competing with each other in the sense that they wanted to be seen to be doing a very good job.

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