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Open Reading Frames: The Genome and the Media - Mike Fortun - Page 3

As I mentioned, this has been a year of heavy media attention to the "completion" of the human genome sequence. Establishing beginnings and endings are, of course, two deeply entrenched ways of framing unruly narratives and nonlinear, complex events. Beginnings and endings are dramatic and beg to be marked, and they provide the necessary moments of ritual closure and celebration. But at the same time it's good to be reminded of what is also operating near the frame of the completion story, so let me take you back to the mid-1980s when plans for a Human Genome Project were first starting to be discussed, in terms of both the scientific and political merits of a narrative of completion.

It was at the annual Cold Spring Harbor meeting of 1986, that debate about the wisdom of doing something like the Human Genome Project really hit the scientific and popular press. In a special session at the meetings, geneticist David Botstein had just spoken passionately about the risks of a large-scale sequencing project that would "indenture all of us, especially the young people, to this enormous thing, like the space shuttle". And then someone in the audience -- I still don't know who - stood up and said:

I'd just like to say that perhaps we should be politicians at this point, and call it sequencing the entire human genome, and spend the money on exactly that thing. [Laughter, scattered applause.] I think -- no, no, no, it's like sending men to the moon. Sending men to the moon was extremely expensive and extremely pointless [some laughter], but it was -- because we could have got as much information with half the cost, with machines -- scientifically, at least. But if we go and tell Congress we're going to do something like this that the general public can understand, they'll give us the money, as long as we agree among ourselves that what we're actually going to do with it is maybe sequence the one percent of the genome that's interesting and try to develop [laughter], try to develop technologies that in fact will allow us to sequence the human genome in 1999, just in time to meet the deadline. (2)

So it's long been recognized that a beginning and ending -- especially with a dramatic race in the middle, whether between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in space, or Venter and Collins in genome space-- is a framing device that Congress and the general public can understand and support. And this person's imaginative vision at Cold Spring Harbor turned out to be remarkably accurate. The race to a "complete sequence" was a media-friendly framing device, while the really important things were happening at the margins of that frame: the development of new sequencing and mapping technologies, practices, and concepts; the production and interrogation of ever more combinatorial databases through a variety of bioinformatics tools; and the training and enculturation of a next generation of scientists. All this comprised what Eric Lander once called the "Route One of Genetics," and what Leroy Hood has called a "fantastic infrastructure:" the largely automated, high-throughput tools and techniques of genomics.

It was also always envisioned throughout the HGP debates of the late 1980s that this 1950s-style federally-funded genomic highway infrastructure would take us two places: first, to a post-genomic data landscape in which organisms could truly begin to be appreciated for the non-linear, epigenetic systems they are. Second, the infrastructure would undergird a U.S. biotechnology sector that could occupy a dominant position in a highly competitive global bioeconomy. In the late 1980s Japan was the stick used to beat Congress over the head on this issue of gobal competition, and if that threat never quite materialized the way it was thought to, the end result has been the same. In 1987, not even a Nobel laureate like Wally Gilbert could convince enough pharmaceutical companies and venture capitalists that there was a viable future in the production, copyrighting, and selling of genomic information; in 1997, an Icelandic scientist with no record of genomic research could leverage $12 million in venture capital and a $200 million promise from Hoffman La-Roche, to become a player in an already well-established, highly competitive, and highy volatile genomics economy. But that's getting ahead of myself.

(2) Author's transcript of taped discussion at Cold Spring Harbor meeting, "The Molecular Biology of Homo sapiens," June 1986; tape recording deposited at the Human Genome Archive, National Reference Center for Bioethics Literature, Georgetown University, Washington, DC.

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