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Q&A: Bob Waterston on the Significance of the Genome s Anniversary

NEW YORK, June 27 - Get out your party hats--it's time to celebrate! This week marks the one-year anniversary of the announcement at the White House by Craig Venter, Celera's chief scientific officer, and Francis Collins, the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, along with former President Clinton, that scientists had completed a rough draft of the entire human genome.

Now that the dust has settled--366 days later--GenomeWeb felt it was time to reflect on what really came of that important announcement. In the annals of history, how will researchers remember June 26, 2000? On that and other questions, GenomeWeb spoke Wednesday with Bob Waterston, director of Washington University genome sequencing center, who helped coordinate the sequencing of genome and attended last year's White House ceremony.

GW:   What did the announcement mean for you and your work?

Waterston:  In terms of the science, really nothing changed as of that date, because all our data was in the database the day before, and it was all there the day after. But what did happen after that was that we were able to focus on pulling it all together as best we could, on improving the overall assembly of the sequence, and then get to work on seeing what was inside it. That was really a very rewarding experience--pulling everything together for the paper. 

GW:   So it sounds like you feel the real milestone, in terms of science, came when you and your colleagues published the results of your sequencing efforts in February of this year?

Waterston:   Yes, that's what science is really about. You know, at a press conference, nobody can actually build on what you've said. And the whole purpose of science is to get people to move forward based on what you've found. I think the paper did that in a substantial way.

GW:   At the same time, the value of a press conference is to create awareness in the public's mind of what's going on, to let them know the genome exists and what researchers are doing with it.

Waterston:   Right, and I would agree, that was a very positive aspect of the press conference. As a scientist, I'd just as soon not have to worry about all of the political, ethical issues. As a person, however, I realize how important they are. And I realize the potential impact of what we are working on. We're not simply in an ivory tower here.

GW:   One year ago, CNN and Time Magazine released results of a poll in which 46 percent of the respondents said they thought sequencing the genome would have harmful results. What feedback have you received from the public over this year and what you are doing about it?

Waterston:  I hear that people are concerned, and they should be. I think it's healthy that people think it's a dangerous thing. What was really gratifying from all the June 26 stuff is the intense interest that people have, and the increasing sophistication of the debate. When I look back at the coverage over the past two years, my perception is that the sophistication of the material has changed markedly, which I suspect is both a reflection of the press itself [and] what they can expect their audience to digest. 

GW:   In a way, could that be one way of perceiving the importance of June 26--that it allowed the press to build on that material with everything that came after?

Waterston:   I fully agree with that. When the papers came out in February, there was an embargo, but it was broken, and everything appeared on Sunday. And I thought, "Well, we're going to have our press conference on Monday, and there isn't going to be anything written about it on Tuesday, and no one is going to show up because everything's done." But, indeed, the story continued to go on for several days. There was more on the stuff on Monday, and there was still more on Tuesday. And I think that was both a reflection of the intense interest of the public more broadly, but also a reflection of the fact that the story had been playing for a while.

GW: How has the international collaboration, so evident on June 26 of last year, maintained itself since?

Waterston:   I think that's been very strong. Over the last couple months, in fact, people have worked more closely on the "tidying up" aspects--making sure everything is being worked on, but not worked on twice. And part of it is that we have the means by which we can do this now, in a way that we've never had before. But part of it, I think, is the strong sense that we are working together to get the genome fully complete. By we, I mean the same countries that have been involved in the project as of June 26: the US, England, France, Japan, and China, as the major participants up to this point. 

GW:   How has the relationship between the public and private sectors evolved over the past year?

Waterston:   Well, it hasn't resulted in any close cooperation between the two. I think the private sector has gone onto things that are more likely to make money. I think there's been a divergence of paths, I guess.

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