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HGP NIH in Party Mode: Complete Sequence, DNA's 50th Reasons to Celebrate

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Maynard Olson pronounced it “one of the extraordinary successes of science policy” — and on April 14, the day the human genome sequence was officially declared complete, everyone seemed willing to agree that the Human Genome Project had indeed been a triumph.

At the two-day symposium “From Double Helix to Human Sequence — and Beyond,” scientists who have been involved in this project for as many as 15 years joined together to congratulate each other on a job well done. Some 1,400 people flocked to the NIH, packing the Natcher auditorium and an overflow room, to join in the celebration of the sequence and the 50th anniversary of Watson and Crick’s DNA structure discovery.

According to Bob Waterston, the complete sequence has 2.85 billion bases with fewer than 400 gaps, and “meets a standard not thought possible” when this project was first conceived.

The meeting was a social opportunity as long-distance collaborators enjoyed a rare chance to chat in person, as well as a time for reminiscing. But first and foremost, it was a time for praise all around.

Elias Zerhouni, director of the NIH, kicked off the event by congratulating scientists on an “effort unprecedented in science.” And Ari Patrinos, representing DOE’s role in the project, thanked everyone for this “most noble of research undertakings.”

Francis Collins continued the spirit, appearing delighted on what he called a “milestone sort of a day” to be able to “declare the goals of the Human Genome Project to be complete” — and attendees, just as thrilled, responded with a burst of applause.

Collins noted that the effort, which took place in 16 labs across six countries as well as in several computational biology initiatives, came in under budget and ahead of schedule. The original goals gave the project a 2005 deadline and a $3 billion budget. The $2.7 billion spent by the US for the HGP also funded the mouse and fugu sequence.

Reminiscence came easily. During his talk, James Watson, who was collared at nearly every coffee break by autograph and photo seekers, meandered through memories of another fateful day 50 years ago: the discovery, as he put it, “we didn’t expect to find ourselves.”

Francis Crick, unable to travel, sent a recorded address in which he also enjoyed a stroll down memory lane. But he downplayed his and Watson’s fabled prelude to the HGP: “Did we foresee the sequencing of the human genome? No, we didn’t,” he said.

NHGRI’s Larry Thompson prepared a series of short films for the affair. The videos, entitled “Deciphering Nature’s Alphabet,” were almost a cultural history of the field, featuring genomics luminaries remembering how various discoveries came about. Interviews with people including Sydney Brenner, Robert Sinsheimer, Matthew Meselson, David Botstein, David Baltimore, Walter Gilbert, Maxine Singer, Herb Boyer, and Jon Beckwith (along with circa 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s photos of them) elicited good-natured laughter from the audience.

But the socializing didn’t close with the end of the presentations. While the highest-up of the higher-ups were wined and dined at an invitation-only, black-tie dinner at the Library of Congress, some 200 genome scientists — jokingly referring to themselves as “B-listers” — partied the night away at a bash thrown by all the genome centers and co-sponsored by Applied Biosystems and MJ Research.

Toasts turned into a salute to the genome troops. As Whitehead’s Bruce Birren put it, “There’s been a lot of deferred fun over the last 15 years.”

— Meredith Salisbury

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