James Kent on Sydney Brenner
  James Kent     Biography    
Recorded: 31 May 2003

Sydney Brenner. I actually have a love-hate relationship with Sydney Brenner. I love hearing him talk. And he’s done some brilliant work, very brilliant work. And actually the only hate part of it is that I feel that he’s responsible to some extent for the fact that the gene names are so short. And I hate the fact that the gene names are three letters and number. It’s like a license plate. It’s like nobody can remember them. You know, the fly names are problematic. I mean, they’re easy to remember, but the problem is that they describe when the gene is broken, not what the gene really is. And I would and this is partly coming from a programming language thing. And the very first programming language which I had had two letters for your names of symbols. And that was pretty horrible. It was okay when you were doing things that were about so big. And I think our gene names when we were working with phage, which is sort of like the life equivalent of something about this big, one letter, one number, that was okay. And then they went to C. elegans, and it was okay, oh, well, we know one letters not going to be but we’ll go up to three, but oh, please coulnd’t have gone to eight or twelve at least. Then we could have a little description and not just have these three letter acronym.

Oh, yeah. I guess UC Santa Cruz has always actually been strong in biology and I think that we had a little flowering of biology at Cal Tech at one point. And a lot of the people from there went up to Santa Cruz when it was first started including Bob Sinsheimer. And Bob Sinsheimer was one of the first people to consider actually sequencing the human genome which for many, many years seemed a vast and impossible thing. So there was a meeting there and then, really I think it was maybe it’s not entirely coincidence, but it’s certainly a long and convoluted path that then eventually Santa Cruz once again ended up in the center of the human genome. And, of course, the people at the UC Santa Cruz are very proud of this. And so they pulled out the stops. And I think you were talking about your $225,000 a plate thing that you go to raise money, so we had our very, very fancy dinner. And we got Sydney to come and Francis and stuff like that. And so they passed out awards to practically everybody who was there. And Sydney got his award and then I got my award. And so I’m going on and teetering. And I was recently a grad student and I had read his papers and was still sort of… he seemed more of a concept than a person. He was such an authority. And then he was hobbling over to get some… squeezing around the tables to get their awads, and I stepped on his foot by accident. And he’s got arthritis. It’s really badly—it hurt him a lot! So, “Oh, oh, oh.” I’m crushed the toe of molecular biology

Jim Kent is a research scientist at the University of California, Santa Cruz's Center for Biomolecular Science and Engineering. After a stint working in the computer animation industry, he entered the Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology Ph.D. program at Santa Cruz. While completing his degree, he became increasingly interested in bioinformatics. Concurrently, the human genome was being sequenced, accumulating in the databases and was scheduled to be released in one month’s time—however, still no technology was in place to assemble its many sequences. In one month, Jim Kent created a computer program called the GigAssembler and computationally compiled for the first time, the entire human genome so that it could be released to the public at its intended deadline.

Jim Kent focuses on understanding the way in which genes are turned on and off to create varying outcomes.