“I am happy that today the only race we are talking about is the human race.”  Dr Francis Collins, Head, US Human Genome Project

‘To the press, the announcement of the first draft also marked the finishing line of the 'race' between the public and private initiatives. Or as 'Rivals celebrate 'rough draft' of human genome' (Independent). Or, as the Telegraph put it, 'Vietnam veteran makes peace with ex-hippie'.’ Wellcome Trust

‘Flanking Clinton during the announcement were two scientists who had been cast as bitter rivals: J. Craig Venter, president of the private company Celera Genomics Corp., and Francis Collins, director of the federally funded Human Genome Project. After months of conflict and contention, the two had finally put down their cudgels and agreed to cooperate, if not collaborate…’ Robert Cooke, Newsday

Let us lay down our swords under the lights

Let us lay down our swords now under the lights,

locust-whirr of cameras flashing - question storm.

Let us try to write the headlines as we wish -

of peace, the Genome’s beauty, no more war.

Let us defuse the ungainly battlescene,

focus people on what we are giving -

let them understand its vast, invisible dimension;

with metaphor, analogy, simile, wonder - poetry.


My smile is fixed by an embalmer -

my handshake also stiff as a corpse;

for the Genome’s sake will I grin,

ground teeth rough in my mouth -

ah, we rejoice together, all chums,

joint front, outburst of bonhomie -

like amorous drunk strangers entwined;

giddy, voluble with temporary sincerity.

‘Many features of the worm sequencing project are very much in evidence in the way Dr Sulston and his colleagues have managed their contribution to the human project. A prime example is the continued partnership with Bob Waterston’s lab in St Louis, now called the Genome Sequencing Center (GSC). Another is the strong, principled view of data release that the worm project pioneered. All sequence data produced at the Sanger Centre, the GSC and the other partners in the publicly funded project are made freely available to other researchers every day. “It was totally agreed between Bob and me that this was the right way to do things,” says Dr Sulston. The entry of a private competitor, Celera Genomics, into the genome sequencing arena catapulted John Sulston unexpectedly into the limelight. Having previously had very little public recognition, he found himself regularly speaking up for the project on Newsnight and the Today programme, while the Observer placed him among the UK’s 100 most powerful people.  “The perceived ‘race’ with Celera exposed us to the attention of reporters competing for soundbites in a way that distorted the science,” he says. “But having gained people’s attention, we can now capitalize on it by emphasizing the great benefits the project will bring.” He believes that this kind of confrontation will become a thing of the past as the science moves forward from data gathering to data analysis. “There’s huge room for speciation in the post-genomic era,” he says. “With groups undertaking their own, hypothesis-driven research, there’ll be much less of the head-to-head competition of genomics”.’ BBC News

My team is in the undisputed white corner; public release

of all data is our concern, free access for all - that’s right,

we’re the goodies. Damn right! Stand up, be counted,

what’s at stake in this Big Fight is more than money -

it’s soul and future, healing and access; poverty

and hope – only the people can referee - choose.

‘Almost as remarkable as decoding the genome itself is the turn around in the relationship between the publicly and privately funded teams….The editor-in-chief of the journal Science, Donald Kennedy, welcomed the end of the arguments: "The research leaders of the HGP and Celera Genomics deserve congratulations for their enlightened decision to merge their efforts in this productive collaboration." Bridges have been built in the US between the two side - neither made any negative comment about the other on Monday. But the UK's Dr John Sulston still seems only partly reconciled. At the announcement in London, he said he had fought to ensure that the genome data did not fall into the hands of a private monopoly. "I didn't want my genetic information to be under the control of any one person," he said. "I regret having to fight, but I am proud that I did.". On the so-called "race" between the public and private sectors, Dr Sulston said Celera's intervention had not, in his view, speeded things up that much. The rough draft probably came just a year earlier than it would have done without the competition, he told the news conference.’ Dr Damian Carrington, BBC News Online

We do not want to appear like dogs with a bone -

however the Genome is viewed, it’s not dignified;

scrapping over the biological grail, which should be holy,

as some of us understand - though not that other lot there.

We don’t want to appear like jackals at a kill -

however we got here to the rainbow’s gold end;

tearing up the family inheritance, competing for pieces.

At least we’ll pay for ours - not like that lot over there.


This bird in the hand has always been free,

from mud and water it flew up, so slowly -

time to convert light to green, flippers

to feet, arms to wings – out with nets

have been iron fists with waiting cages;

butterfly catchers weeping with delight.

‘Both gene-seeking teams also promised that by the end of the year all of their data will be available to scientists worldwide on the Internet. That is a departure from Celera's original position, which was that its data would be withheld for a substantial time while its scientists searched through it for genes with commercial value. Collins' team has made a point of making its data public immediately, dumping it into the genome database daily for use by scientists everywhere. In the nine months that Celera has been seeking genes with commercial value, Venter said, the company has filed for patents on about two dozen individual genes. But he said the company's main goal-the way it expects to make money-is to become an information resource, a place where the genomes of humans, mice, cats, dogs, rats and many other organisms can be compared. Permission to use that resource is being sold via subscription to major pharmaceutical companies, biotechnology firms and some universities. The result, he added, should be that research that once took weeks, months or years to perform in the laboratory can now be done immediately in the computer, perhaps in just seconds. For research companies, the savings would be enormous.  Both Venter and Collins also tried to overcome the impression that they have been warring competitors racing to be first to "capture" the human genome. "The focus on a race and the personality issues ... has in many ways been a disservice," Collins said. "I don't think the animosity or hostility was anything approaching the way it was described in some pieces that Craig and I have had to read." In any case, Collins added, "This, after all, is a noble enterprise.  Sequencing our genome is not something that is tarnished in some way by what appears to be a cat fight among the people who are involved.” ref

Let us smooth the troubled waters around our silver ghost,

our precious one - recovered from earthen flesh of history;

uncovered from the yeilding physical deep, guddled molecules -

together we have dragged her into light, shown her to the world.

We have given her our double-barrelled name, paternity-testing

now will benefit no-one; what matters now is how she is treated,

what happens to her gifts and treasures, that she remains free;

her potential is captured, liberated - in the name of everybody.


Will our white flags last, slung so high above our labs;

can the peace last - now the Genome is published, free.

Will shackles and manacles - wing-clippers, slave masters,

stay at bay; have we done enough, can we now look away.


‘The acrimonious row that has blighted one of the great scientific achievements of modern times has reared its head again. State-backed scientists working to decode the human genome have gone into print with further criticism of the private company Celera Genomics and the method it used to read the biochemical instructions for life. The public scientists say a new statistical study shows Celera would have struggled to produce its "rough draft" of the genome without the data made freely available on the net by state-funded labs. The accusation, published in the journal The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is just the latest twist in what has become a very bitter dispute between the groups involved. Celera rejects the criticism and promises to publish a formal response in the journal at a later date. A rough draft, or "first assembly", of the human genome was announced jointly by both the Human Genome Project (backed by tax-payers money) and the Maryland, US, company Celera Genomics… But the run-up to these scientific milestones was punctured by hostile words from both sides about the quality and speed of the other's work. Each used a slightly different technique to read the 3.2 billion "letters", or base pairs, of DNA that make up the human genome…But the scientists at the HGP have once again questioned whether Celera could have succeeded were it not able to check its research against the public data available on the internet. Robert Warterston, Eric Lander and John Sulston - who once famously called Celera's work a "con job" - say in their PNAS paper that they have studied the technique used by Celera and found it to be largely dependent on their findings - they call it "a narrow technical issue about the way [Celera] used the data". Celera has always acknowledged use of the public data - but only to confirm its own work. However, Dr Robert Warterston, from Washington University, St Louis, US, said the way Celera broke up the genome meant it was virtually impossible to reassemble accurately without the help of the HGP data. "Celera's method was like taking satellite images of forests from around the world and then cutting them up and trying to put them back together," he told BBC News Online. "As one bit of forest looks very much like another, it would be almost impossible not to mix the Siberian Forest with the Amazon Forest. But if you only cut up each forest at a time, the job would be much easier." Dr Warterston claimed the WGS technique was a useful tool for making a "draft" but that the HGP method was required to reach a "gold standard" genome. Dr Mark Adams from Celera Genomics said the company would respond to the criticism officially in the journal.’ BBC News Online, 2002

Dusk slinks into the battlefield, grey as an old wolf,

but the truce is uneasy, my friend - listen – silence -

where once the conflict raged. Think you the troops

have beaten their microscopes into medals, buttons;

melted computers - sequencers become ceremonial?

No, this withdrawal is the calm before a deathless storm,

for neither won cleanly. The Grail has left, as celebrated;

was held aloft - shining, ultimate trophy; but not yet free,

not safe - for that which they could not hunt and kidnap -

they will infiltrate – dissolve - bit by bit, sell for treasure.

Intrigue, skirmish - traps and ambush is what lies ahead;-

mark my words, we’ll need our heroes back once more -

and let us pray for money - protection costs, brave friend;

shoulder to shoulder we can still defend the script of life -

as they unwind her secret wraps; steal words, leave poetry.

‘Celera Genomics, the company that 'raced' the public Human Genome Project to finish sequencing the human genome, will be depositing its human genome sequence, once only available by subscription, into the online database GenBank. This will enable scientists to have free access to both versions of the sequenced human genome. In 1998, Craig Venter announced that Celera could complete the decoding faster and more cheaply than the publicly funded Human Genome Project, which had been at work since 1985. The competition between the two projects came to an end when both published their draft sequences in 2001. The Human Genome Project went on to announce that they had completed decoding the human genome in 2003, the 50th anniversary of the discovery by Watson and Crick of the structure of DNA. One significant difference between the two projects had always been that the public project members agreed to deposit their sequence into publicly accessible databases for immediate use by scientists. Celera kept its sequence private and announced they would sell subscriptions for access to the data. Now that plan has been set aside and Celera's data will join the rest in the public domain. It had been claimed that Celera was not able to make money from the sale of the sequence data, when similar data was freely available. Celera Genomics now concentrates on therapeutic target and drug discovery.’ Wellcome Trust, 2004

‘Thus biology has been revolutionized by genomic information and by the methods that permit useful access to it. Equally importantly, these revolutionary changes have been disseminated throughout the scientific community, and spread to other interested parties, because many of those who practice genomics have made a concerted effort to ensure that access is simplified for all, including those who have not been deeply schooled in the information sciences. The goal of providing genomic information widely has also inevitably attracted the interests of those in the commercial sector, and privately developed versions of various genomes are also now available, albeit for a licensing fee. The operative principle most prominently involved in transmitting the fruits of genomics - the one that has captured the imagination of the public and served as a standard for the sharing of results and methods more generally in modern biology - has been open access. Funding by public and philanthropic organizations, such as the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Department of Energy, the Wellcome Trust in Britain, and many other organizations, has made this altruistic behavior possible and has fostered the idea that genomic information about biological species should be available to all. (Such information about individual human beings is, of course, an entirely different matter and should be protected by privacy rules.) The attitude of open access to new biological knowledge has also been embodied in the databases of the International Nucleotide Sequence Database Collaboration, comprising the DNA DataBank of Japan, the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, and GenBank at the US National Library of Medicine. The same focus on open access is exemplified by PubMed (operated by the NLM), other gateways to the scientific literature, and the assemblies of genomic sequence now found at the several Web portals described in this guide.’ Harold Varmus, Nature, 2003

The scale of the human makes it hard to grasp -

difficult not to see something the size of a man;

but the physical is life’s gorgeous organic shorthand

for the digital body; pure information for instruction,

digital intent, chemical spell stretching to the stars

and back in silver strings - like describing the sea -

composition of earth. All these things once unknowable -

mysterious inventions; as symbols on a computer screen

mean sea, elephant, utterly linked, in just 17 inches there;

unmistakeably the sign of the creature or element - scaled

comprehensively; so these vast tranches of information

can be held on a disk, are extant in a man, but immense.

Their enormity cannot be overestimated, yet protection, care,

is paramount; there being people who will sell the unsellable. 

‘Furthermore, the advice is offered in that spirit of altruism that has come to characterize the public world of genomics. The information is provided in a highly inviting and understandable format by casting it in the form of answers to the questions most commonly posed when approaching big genomes. The information, made freely available on the World Wide Web, has been assembled by some of the best minds in the HGP, who have generously given their time and intellect to encourage widespread use of the great bounty that has been created over the past two decades…In other words, the guide to use of genomes provided here is simply another indication that the HGP should take great pride in much more than the sequencing of genomes.’  Harold Varmus, Nature, 2003

‘The authors of this landmark paper anticipate the increasingly rewarding postgenomic research that is now becoming possible and highlight the importance of multiple genomes being sequenced over the coming years. However, the real work, of course, has already begun: all human genetics journals have seen a significant increase in the amount of interesting papers. They range from basic to clinical, and from large-scale, discovery-oriented to very focused, hypothesis-driven. Indeed, one can validly conclude that this is the human genome project really at work: allowing more people, in more labs, in more countries, to contribute to the discovery process, and thus eventually to improving healthcare. This trend clearly vindicates the wise decision of the Public Consortium to put their work in the public domain with highest priority.’ European Journal of Human Genetics, 2005

‘Dr Venter is best known for his role in a company called Celera Genomics and its mission to produce a private version of the human genetic code. Celera Genomics planned to sell the information to subscribers. The business model did not succeed, largely because the publicly funded version of the code was posted without restriction on the internet.’ David Whitehouse, Science Editor, BBC, 2005

Note from the author
exploring the project

    The Human Genome Project
    – Public versus private
        Public Servants,
        Private Masters
        Human Genome Project
        – Method (2)
    Gene Patenting
    Blood Poems
    Holy-Moley-More God!

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