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Having my own genome sequenced (Part 1)


Results of the Human Genome Project; sequencing and mapping
James Watson Scientist
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The Human Genome Project was sort of results came in two phases. In - it was sort of 18 - I mean, 19 - I think - '98, Craig Venter, or '97, made an announcement that he was forming a new company, Celera, to sequence the human genome, the same objective as Wally Gilbert had had roughly 10 years before, but now the sequencing machines were a main staple and there was going to be a new version with capillary sequencing which was going to radically speed it up. And he proposed to assemble it by just sequencing so much that you - and computers had increased in their powers, so you just randomly sequence small fragments of DNA, sequence them and then found overlapping segments of sequence and assemble that. And the Human Genome Project was - the international consortium had chosen to first map the whole DNA onto yeast artificial chromosomes and then bacteria, things called bacs [?] which contained - you had more DNA. And so we didn't want to sequence something until we knew roughly where it was on the genome and - not wishing to take a chance that you could sequence enough, because sequencing was expensive and maybe, you know, it would just cost too much to have the coverage which you'd like for what was called the shotgun. But Craig said he'd do it by shotgun. But in fact, when he put forth a preliminary draft, he used all the human data. And the human data had a meeting in Bermuda in about '96. It was a very important meeting where the point of the meeting was really to discuss the distribution of sequence once you sequenced. There wasn't much sequencing that had been done at the time of Bermuda, but the decision which was really, I think, initially really promoted by John Sulston who was, I think he didn't have his Nobel Prize for the sequencing C. elegans, that came a couple of years later. But John wanted it released, so the people who did the sequencing didn't get a first look. And so it would help everyone by doing that. And there was a sort of unanimous vote in favour, including Craig Venter, but I think afterwards he realized he was, you know, no company would fund you to put out sequences for which the company would have no prior use. So he changed his mind soon when he formed a private company, but used all the international data together with his shotgun data to present his first sequence. So at the time of assembling the genome, it was clearly a competitive race where the last part of it was done by a marvellous man named Jim Kent at Santa Cruz. He'd been in a computer company and was in - had left industry to come back and get a PhD and by, I think, working for two months he developed the algorithms which let him essentially put the Human Genome Project together. So, the project was, on the human side, was put together at Santa Cruz where the sequencing was not done. And it was quite clear, you know, if all the sequence was on the web, it allowed everyone to work on it. So that was June in 2000 - I know it was 2000 because Bill Clinton was still President. And the - there was a White House announcement and I think it was outside. It was, you know, in June, and Craig Venter and Francis Collins came out to represent the two opponents. And it was a happy occasion. But it really hadn't been finished, it was just sort of first drafts. And so it was finally the international, not the company which came out with the complete referenced sequence in 2003. Craig, it turned out that the human DNA that Craig was synthesising, er, sequencing was none other than Craig's, whereas the human DNA had been mixed up so it was a donor of six anonymous or eight anonymous people from Buffalo which had provided the samples that went into the cloning thing. So 2003 had the sequence and the DNA chips would be made and you could study, you know, among other things, look at cancer DNA and measure using chips whether some DNA was amplified or not. So, one way of promoting cancer is just to have 10 copies of a cancer-promoting gene caused by a crossing over process which amplifies the number of copies of the gene. So the first genome was very important.

American molecular biologist James Dewey Watson is probably best known for discovering the structure of DNA for which he was jointly awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine along with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins. His long career has seen him teaching at Harvard and Caltech, and taking over the directorship of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. From 1988 to 1992, James Watson was head of the Human Genome Project at the National Institutes of Health. His current research focuses on the study of cancer.

Listeners: Martin Raff Walter Gratzer

Martin Raff is a Canadian-born neurologist and research biologist who has made important contributions to immunology and cell development. He has a special interest in apoptosis, the phenomenon of cell death.



Listen to Martin Raff at Web of Stories



Walter Gratzer is Emeritus Professor of Biophysical Chemistry at King's College London, and was for most of his research career a member of the scientific staff of the Medical Research Council. He is the author of several books on popular science. He was a Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard and has known Jim Watson since that time

Duration: 7 minutes, 48 seconds

Date story recorded: November 2008 and October 2009

Date story went live: 18 June 2010