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NEXT STORY

The Genome Project

RELATED STORIES

Ambitious ideas
Renato Dulbecco Scientist
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Studying these- I told you that I was studying these mammary gland cells, mammary gland tumours, of rats and all that- with monoclonal antibodies we could delve a little into genetics, because monoclonal antibodies also reflect some types of genes. Therefore it was still a minimal hypothesis, our hypothesis was so minimal that I thought, this isn't sufficient. And thinking more about it, I had the idea that it was necessary to truly make a leap forward, to try and identify all the genes of an organism. And how to go about identifying all the genes of an organism? We know that genes are a part of DNA, we know how they are made and what the characteristics are, etc., so that if we had the entire DNA structure, the entire sequence, as it is called, of the DNA base, we could identify all the genes and therefore work with all the genes. Then I thought, well, this genome sequencing- I thought well, speaking also to colleagues that were working in these types of fields, it was clear that, it was very, very difficult to obtain, but it was possible, provided that there was truly a strong commitment. And then I started to speak publicly about this idea and the first time I did it, I spoke at Caltech because there- was it at Caltech, by the way? Wasn't it- ? Hold on a minute. Or was it in LA? it was in LA. There was the inauguration of an institute in Los Angeles and they invited me to speak, to do the introduction, to speak at the start. And I thought that this was a great opportunity, because there were a lot of people, all interested scientists and so I focussed my presentation on this possibility of genome sequencing, as it is called, the genome is a set of genes- then I was thinking of humans, in regard to humans. And I remember that I spoke- was speaking, and at the end I thought there would have been some kind of reaction but instead, there were no reactions, they were all silent. Were they silent because they were shocked or out of indifference? No, no, they were silent. I don't know why. Then speaking individually, what they saw was the huge difficulty of this project, however, they only saw the negative side.

Studiando queste- appunto, ti dicevo che studiavo queste cellule della ghiandola mammaria, tumori della ghiandola mammaria, del ratto e tutto questo- con anticorpi monoclonali potevamo entrare un po', insomma nella genetica, perché gli anticorpi monoclonali riflettono anche alcuni tipi di geni. Però, insomma, era ancora una supposizione minima, quello che avevamo come supposizione era così poco che io pensavo, questo insomma, non è assolutamente sufficiente. E pensandoci bene, mi è venuta l'idea che si doveva fare un balzo avanti veramente, cioè quello di cercare di identificare tutti i geni di un organismo. E come si fa a identificare tutti i geni di un organismo? Noi sappiamo che i geni sono una parte del DNA, sappiamo come sono fatti e quali sono le caratteristiche, ecc, per cui se avessimo tutta la struttura del DNA, tutta la sequenza, come viene chiamata, delle basi del DNA, si potrebbero identificare tutti i geni e perciò si potrebbe lavorare con tutti i geni. Allora ho pensato, beh, questo sequenziamento del genoma- ho pensato bene, parlando anche a colleghi che lavoravano in campi di questo tipo, insomma, era chiaro che, era una cosa molto, molto difficile da ottenere, ma era una cosa possibile, purché veramente ci fosse un forte impegno. E allora ho cominciato a parlare pubblicamente di questa idea e la prima volta che l'ho fatto, l'ho fatto al Caltech perché lì- era al Caltech, anzi? Non era mica- ? Aspetta un momento. O fu a Los Angeles? Fu a Los Angeles. Insomma c'era l'inaugurazione di un istituto a Los Angeles e mi avevano invitato a parlare, a fare il preludio, a fare la conferenza all'inizio. E io ho pensato che quella era una buona occasione, perché c'era un mucchio di gente, tutti scienziati interessati e perciò l'ho centrato- la mia presentazione, appunto, su questa possibilità di sequenziare il genoma, come si chiama, il genoma è tutto un insieme di geni- allora pensavo all'uomo, a quello umano. E mi ricordo che ho parlato- parlando, insomma alla fine pensavo di avere delle reazioni, ma invece non c'è stata nessuna reazione, erano tutti silenziosi. Erano silenziosi perché colpiti o per indifferenza? No, no, erano silenziosi. Questo non lo so, capisci? Così poi parlando isolatamente, quello che loro vedevano è la difficoltà enorme di questo progetto, quindi, vedevano solo il lato negativo.

The Italian biologist Renato Dulbecco (1914-2012) had early success isolating a mutant of the polio virus which was used to create a life-saving vaccine. Later in his career, he initiated the Human Genome Project and was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1975 for furthering our understanding of cancer caused by viruses.

Listeners: Paola De Paoli Marchetti

Paola De Paoli Marchetti is a science journalist who graduated with an honours degree in foreign languages and literature from the University Ca’Foscari, Venice. She has been a science journalist since the 1960s and has been on the staff of the newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore since 1970. She was elected president of UGIS (Italian Association of Science Journalists) in 1984. She has been a Member of the Board of EUSJA (European Union of Science Journalists’ Associations, Strasbourg), and was its president in 1987-1988 and 1998-2000. In May 2000 she was unanimously elected president emeritus. She was a member of the National Council of Italian Journalists (1992-1998). From 2002 to 2004 she was member of the working group for scientific communication of the National Committee for Biotechnology. She has also been a consultant at the Italian Ministry of Research and Technology and editor-in-chief of the publication MRST, policy of science and technology. She has co-authored many publications in the field of scientific information, including Le biotecnologie in Italia, Le piste della ricerca and Luna vent’anni dopo.

Duration: 3 minutes, 27 seconds

Date story recorded: May 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008