The Human Genome Project

– Public versus Private


"This information is so important that it cannot be proprietary." C. Thomas Caskey, Science, 1987

"It strikes me that this is a cream-skimming approach. It's clearly an attempt to short-circuit the hard problems and defer them to the [research] community at a very substantial cost." Robert Waterston, on the announcement of the Celera Genomics private Human Genome Sequencing Project, Science, 1998

‘Reading the book of life - The blueprint of humanity, the book of life, the software for existence - whatever you call it, decoding the entire three billion letters of human DNA is a monumental achievement… many argue it is science's greatest achievement… But the final stages of completing the first draft of the human genome have taken an ugly turn. Brilliant scientists have accused one another of immorality and ignorance. On one side are humble-living, publicly-funded scientists, who aim to bequeath the raw human code to the world, free of charge. They are part of a 12-year, $3bn project, of which $500m will be spent on the human genome. On the other are privately-funded scientists who say only the rigours of the market and the investment of big business can hope to reap rapidly and efficiently the benefits of decoding human DNA. One, Craig Venter, caused uproar in 1998 by saying he would decode the entire genome in just three years at a tenth of the cost of the public project. He may well do it - in April he announced all the chemical letters of DNA had been read, they just needed to be assembled into the right order. Adding to the acrimony is a raging argument over who should own the pieces of the human blueprint being churned out, every minute of every day. The people with your genes in their hands could amass fabulous wealth. Observers ask if that would be fair reward for boosting healthcare further than ever before or profiteering from property belonging to the human race. .. Most agree that the first draft of the human genome is simply the end of the beginning. They say we now have the letters which describe human biology, but we have to decipher the words, or genes, and then understand the language, or gene function. One thing, however, is sure. Once we have decoded the human sequence of DNA, it cannot be made secret again. "It will exist on the world's computers for as long as we exist," says Dr John Sulston. "It's a project of truly biblical proportions." And, for better or worse, the world will never be the same again, for any of us.’ Reading the Book of Life, BBC Science, UK, 2000

‘Dr John Sulston, director of the UK part of the Human Genome Project, attacked Dr Craig Venter, head of the private company Celera Genomics, saying: "Celera want to establish a monopoly sequence on the human sequence - Craig has gone morally wrong”…Dr Venter was no less vitriolic in his comments: "It is much easier to demonise Celera than justify the hundreds of millions of dollars the Human Genome Project has wasted." BBC News, UK

"In 1998, rather sadly in my opinion, the American effort split into a private and a public effort." Dr John Sulston, Leader UK Human Genome Project; Director, Wellcome Trust Sanger Centre UK, 2000

"If a company behaves in what scientists believe is a socially responsible manner, they can't make a profit." Robert Cook-Deegan, Science,1987

“To have a bizarre pay-to-view mechanism, almost like buying digital TV to view the World Cup, is not right for the human genome.” Dr Mike Dexter, Director, Wellcome Trust, 2000

The Scene is set…

Shakespearean drama; battle for the very secret of mankind,

the Genome’s golden soul. What bold protaganists - heroes,

anti-heroes; crude footsoldiers, boors and dedicated troops -

smugglers, bandits, thieves; the shy custodians forced to fight.

Insignia glitter - The Tree of Life & Wings, or Man in a Cage,

with Dollar bones - Sterling skin. Foothill skirmishes, as they

climb the star-capped mountain to the hot denouement;

debates raging overhead – crows and doves in conflict;

the glittering flash of words beaten into swords, shields.

There are goodies and baddies in this world, my child

There are goodies and baddies in this world, my child;

often not so clearly cast one can read them like a text -

but there are occasions when what is right is so bright,

clear, its representatives shine into your eyes like light.

Be on the side of the angels, my child, no matter what;

for everything you do is seen somewhere - and judged.

“People have to take democratic responsibility for the human genome. It's not something that can be left to the commercial manufacturers, like making motor cars.”  Dr John Sulston, Director, UK Human Genome Project

An angel metamorphosed from darkness

An angel metamorphosed from darkness - owl and moonlight;

whispering, touching human shoulder blades, sprouting green

wings there like new shoots; feathers flowering, appendages

looking for light - seed army fruiting, taking up long flowers

as coloured swords - bows of willow, slow nut/seed bombs;

rushing upwards, heavy as bees - like enormous baby doves.

The scientific community thinks this is just a business project, and the business community thinks it's just a science project." Craig Venter, on the announcement of his Celera Genomics private Human Genome Sequencing Project, Science, 1999

‘Speed matters - discovery can’t wait.’ Slogan of Craig Venter's private sequencing company, Celera Genomics

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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