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Genome Showdown Concludes with Attempt at Camaraderie

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Members of the press and scientific community crowded shoulder to shoulder into the Capitol Hilton in February to hear Francis Collins and Craig Venter jointly announce the publication of the genome sequence. Among the acknowledged heroes at the conference were Senator Pete Domenici (“father of the genome project for the US”) and James Watson (“father of the genome project everywhere else,” according to Collins).

Venter and Collins scattered bits of wisdom throughout the conference. “Our understanding of the human genome has changed fundamentally,” Venter said, noting in particular that there’s no more one-gene-one-protein mentality, and that people probably aren’t hard-wired; in fact, environment may be as important as DNA in shaping people.

Collins predicted that we’ll see “individualized preventive medicine in about a decade.”

Between the sound bites, listeners got a sense of the pressure and hard work that went into this milestone. “I told each scientific advisor they had to be successful,” Venter recalled, “because if one of them failed the whole project would fail.”

Perhaps the loudest message of this end-of-the-race event was that it was really “the end of the beginning,” as Collins put it. As Bob Waterston displayed a sizable poster of chromosome 1, he said, “You can appreciate both the scale of the project and the scale of the task ahead.”

Venter, who later noted Celera’s aggressive entry into proteomics, added, “We don’t think this data will be as deterministic as we thought.”

Both sides agreed that collaboration would be the theme of the future. Venter found himself taking an early step toward this goal when, asked for an autograph, he had to sign the Nature issue — Science, with Celera’s paper, was not distributed at the conference.

— Meredith Salisbury

 

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