Promethean

Craig Venter – the first human to have his entire genome sequenced and placed in the public domain.

(an extract of 'Genes, cells and Brains' by Hilary & Steven Rose)

“Rattled – and angered – by Venter’s move, the public sequencers were forced to up their game. Without the massive financial In a PR attempt to gloss over the disputes, which were attracting increasing and unwanted press commentary, the race was declared a tie in 2000, when the two ‘first drafts’ of the genome were published – the public one in Nature, the private one in Science. President Bill Clinton, flanked by Collins and Venter, and Prime Minister Tony Blair, speaking over a video link and flanked by no one, held a joint press conference announcing this new gift to humanity. Sulston, to his irritation, was neither present nor referred to by Blair. As scripted by Collins, Clinton referred to the sequence as ‘the language in which God created life’ – a sentiment with which one assumes Blair concurred. Neither noted the closing words of the Nature paper announcing the sequence, which echoed those of Watson and Crick in 1953: ‘It has not escaped our notice that the more we learn about the human genome, the more there is to explore.’ Once the transatlantic diplomacy and jockeying involved in this theatrical (and somewhat premature) press conference was over, the public consortium got back to work, declaring the ‘finished’ sequence complete in 2003 and formally winding up the HGP.

The jockeying was much more to Venter’s taste than Sulston’s, or for that matter Collins – as the account in his autobiography gleefully describes. But what Venter also makes clear are his truly Promethean ambitions and his flair for showmanship – integral to securing the resources to realise them. In 2007 Craig Venter became the first individual to have his entire genome sequenced and placed in the public domain. The second, predictably, was Jim Watson.

Collins also discusses some of his own genome in The Language of Life. It is perhaps understandable that the custodians of the old disinterested approach to science, the Nobel committee, chose to award the 2002 prize not to Venter but to Sulston, together with Brenner and Robert Horvitz – and then not for the human genome but for the worm. In sharp contrast to Venter, who has continued to claim ever broader reaches of biology in his attempts to synthesise artificial life, Sulston on retirement withdrew from the laboratory to chair the Institute for Science, Ethics and Innovation in Manchester, and to campaign against gene patenting.”

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