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At NIH Genome Celebration, It s a Milestone Sort of a Day

BETHESDA, Md., April 14 - In a city where people are more often known for taking credit than sharing it, it is a day for pats on the back.

 

Some 1,400 people flocked to the NIH today, packing the Natcher auditorium and an overflow room in another building, to join in the celebration of the completed human genome sequence and the 50th anniversary of Watson and Crick's DNA structure discovery.

 

Attendees of the two-day symposium "From Double Helix to Human Sequence - and Beyond" overwhelmed Natcher's lobby this morning, forming three lines at a table designed for one to get their visitor badges. But no one seemed to mind the wait - it was a social opportunity to catch up with genomics colleagues, most of whom chatted groggily at 8 in the morning.

 

By 8:15, people were already having trouble finding seats for the 8:30 opening of the symposium. A letter from President George Bush was projected on the main screen, commending scientists for their work on the Human Genome Project.

 

The opening speakers, it seemed, were competing for the most historic sound bite. Elias Zerhouni, director of the NIH, kicked off the day after waiting patiently at the podium as milling attendees grabbed seats. He congratulated scientists on an "effort unprecedented in science."

 

Francis Collins continued the spirit, appearing delighted "on this historic 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 this 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.

 

Collins stopped to thank several groups: the Department of Energy, Foundation for NIH, other NIH institutes, and NHGRI in particular. He also asked anyone who had participated in the HGP to stand for recognition (surprisingly, just 20 or so people did so).

 

Ari Patrinos, representing DOE's role in the project, had a few minutes to talk. "What a day indeed," he began. Keeping his remarks brief, he thanked everyone for this "most noble of research undertakings."

 

This much-heralded day, whose lead organizers were  NHGRI researchers Alan Guttmacher and Jane Peterson, was also a day for reminiscing.

 

James Watson, happily waving at people to get the applause to stop, meandered through memories of another fateful day 50 years ago: the discovery, as he put it, "we didn't expect to find ourselves." Also famous for making comments about his preoccupation with the opposite sex, Watson didn't disappoint. The DNA structure discovery was so compelling that "I didn't want to think about anything else," he said, "except, of course, girls."

 

Crick, unable to travel, sent a recorded video address. Perched at a desk in coat and tie with a model of DNA behind him, Crick 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. He also wished genomic scientists all the best for future work. "There seems to be no limit to the problems that now confront us," he said. "Good luck to you."

 

NHGRI must have known memories would be running rampant today - and certainly did all it could to stoke the flames. Larry Thompson, communications chief at NHGRI, produced a multi-part video series featuring genomics luminaries explaining how various discoveries came about - a cultural history, almost, of the field.

 

The short films, "Deciphering Nature's Alphabet," look at the basics of DNA, manipulating DNA, genetic tools, and the genome through interviews with people including Sydney Brenner, Robert Sinsheimer, Matthew Meselson, David Botstein, David Baltimore, Walter Gilbert, Maxine Singer, Herb Boyer, and Jon Beckwith. Photos of many of them from the '50s and '60s elicited good-natured laughter from the audience here.

 

Leading up to this event, the genomics community has engaged in much debate over the significance of today's announcement, and still various definitions of "finished" mean that some people believe this celebration to be premature. None of that debate was evident today, as people leave behind the nitty-gritty to enjoy their celebration.

 

According to Bob Waterston, who led Washington University-St. Louis' sequencing efforts, the sequence still has 2.85 billion bases with fewer than 400 gaps, and "meets a standard not thought possible" when this project was first conceived.

 

Attendees were in such good spirits that no one even commented on Francis Collins's years-belated proclamation as he launched what he called a "milestone sort of a day": "Welcome," Collins said to everyone, "to the genome era."

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