On June 26, 2000 in an event arranged by President Clinton at the White House, Dr. Craig Venter, President and Chief Scientific Officer of Celera Genomics, announced that his company had completed the first assembly of the human genome.
In one stroke, Celera’s achievement rendered the government-funded Human Genome Project obsolete. It demonstrated that the public endeavor was a waste of time, money and resources. Yet, Clinton managed not only to save face, but also to share in Celera’s glory and advance the idea that greater government involvement in science is a good thing.
The whole event conveyed the impression that there had been extensive collaboration between the private and public sectors, and that the Human Genome Project and Celera were jointly announcing a single great achievement of both. This impression could not be farther from the truth.
The Human Genome Project was initiated in 1988 as a joint venture of the Department Of Energy and the National Institutes of Health. Its goal was to produce a high quality sequence of the human genome: one that is 99.99% correct. The project was expected to cost $3 billion and to be finished by 2005.
Ten years later, in 1998, the privately funded Celera was created to achieve the same goal being pursued by the Human Genome Project. Celera proposed to do it for only $300 million and to be done by 2001. Government officials were taken by surprise, and were not happy at all about the news, going as far as to refuse an “offer of collaboration” from Celera to pursue their common goal together.
Not only the government didn’t want collaboration with Celera, but also didn’t want competition with it. At the time, government project managers noted that Celera would not be able to deliver anything better than “a rough draft” of the genome, as compared to the “detailed recipe book promised by the genome project”. Later they also claimed that Celera’s new genome shotgun sequencing method “could not work”. They were proven wrong, and despite their own protests, soon adopted Celera’s method.
Still, the HGP could not catch up with Celera. In a recent report to the US House Representatives Committee on Science, on April 6, 2000, Dr. Venter said that “analysis of the public data in GenBank reveals that it is an unordered collection…” and that “the publicly funded program is nowhere close to being ‘done’.”
Despite Dr. Venter’s testimony, Dr. Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project, reported only two months later, on June 26, that his organization had finished the first “working draft” of the human genome and was delivering “the most visible and spectacular milestone of all” in human history.
But according to information from the HGP’s own Website, they have completed no more than 65% of the working draft sequence and only about 20% of the finished, high quality sequence they hope to have by 2003. Curiously, Dr. Collins did not hesitate to claim having sequenced 85% of the human genome, as if he would be done with just another 15%. The truth is that the HGP still has to produce 35% of the working draft and 80% of the finished sequence.
Also according to the HGP, a “working draft” is a sequence of lower accuracy than the finished sequence and which is not continuous across the genome. Dr. Venter, however, explained that the “draft sequence” is “a term introduced by the public effort but without scientific meaning”, which represents “fragments of DNA… largely unordered”.
Still, many people have been left with the impression that Clinton and the Human Genome Project were greatly responsible for Celera’s achievement and deservedly shared in its glory. The White House press release, for instance, said “that the international Human Genome Project and Celera Genomics Corporation have both completed an initial sequencing of the human genome. President Clinton congratulated the scientists working in both the public and private sectors on this landmark achievement.”
Clinton acted as if he and the Human Genome Project were the great heroes of the day and even had the audacity to invite Dr. Craig Venter to “share in the glory of this day.” Well, Clinton will never give up twisting perceptions as an attempt to change the facts.
But despite appearances of cooperation and mutual achievement, the fact is that tiny Celera beat the huge Humane Genome Project by far. Celera delivered a complete, high quality, finished genome sequence, while the HGP has delivered an incomplete, low quality, and unordered one. Celera did it in two years while the government hasn’t finished it yet in twelve. And Celera did it all with private capital for a fraction of the cost incurred by the HGP, which used taxpayers money.
Celera should not have shared the podium with the government. By having done so, it lent legitimacy to government’s inappropriate claim to the glory that should have been all Celera’s.