James Wyngaarden on Surprises in the HGP
  James Wyngaarden     Biography    
Recorded: 18 Aug 2003

I think that what surprised me was the—there really were two things; on the scientific front, we knew at the start there would have to be methodological improvements. For example at the time that the project was initiated, we were dealing with clones in E. coli. And it would have taken fifty five to sixty thousand clones to deal with the entire human genome. And then Maynard Olson developed these yeast artificial chromosomes which immediately increased by a factor of ten the size of the DNA piece that could be closed. So now you were down to five or six thousand or maybe eight thousand clones. That was an enormous step forward. And then the sequencing and the machines for sequencing were constantly improved. So it was possible to move much faster. It was initially envisioned as a twenty year project. And here it’s finished in about fifteen.

The other thing that surprised me was at the first press conference when I introduced Jim Watson to the Washington press corps, and they asked him many questions. But he had a prepared statement also, before the questions he had this prepared statement. And he announced that three percent of the budget would be devoted to studies to ethical, legal and social implications of human genome research. And that caught me by total surprise. It caught everybody by total surprise. He hadn’t discussed that with anyone that I was aware. And fortunately that’s not the way the you do things in Washington. That the kind of thing you’re supposed to run through channels and get OMB and White House approval for in advance, you see. That wasn’t done. But this was accepted with such warmth by the press corps, they thought this was absolutely terrific, and so did the department. There was no problem. I mean in the White House and the Congress bought into it right away. And of course the Congress immediately authorized it so then it had legal status and so on. But that was the great surprise. And I really think that that was an insight that Jim had that I’m not sure he realized in advance that this would change the attitude of the public 180 degrees. For those who were opposed to it, it took all the wind out of their sails. Because the things that one could envision as hazard of genome projects, that genetic information might be used in discriminating against jobs, insurance, you can go on and on. It was much, much less likely to happen just because of that decision, that stroke.

James B. Wyngaarden is a medical doctor, biochemist and medical science advisor. He served as director of the National Institutes of Health, associate director for Life Sciences in the Office of Science and Technology Policy, Executive Office of the President, and as director of the Human Genome Organization. Wyngaarden is currently part of the Washington Advisory Group, LLC and director of four biotechnology/pharmaceutical companies. Wyngaarden is also co-author of the textbook The Metabolic Basis of Inherited Disease.

He researches the regulation of purine biosynthesis, the production of uric acid and he helped initiate the use of allopurinol, a drug developed as an anticancer agent and now used as a treatment for gout. While serving as director of the National Institutes of Heath, he enlisted the help of Dr. Watson in 1988 to begin the Human Genome Project. Jim obliged and joined the NIH as the associate director for Human Genome Research, while still acting as director of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.