'Twas a Famous Victory

Last Monday, June 26, President Clinton and Prime Minister Tony Blair staged an Anglo-American photo-op to announce that scientists had not yet completed mapping the human genome. Not finished? Then why did they have the photo-op? A cynic might suppose that Clinton and Blair held it when they did because neither one expected to be in office when the mapping was complete. But there is another more legitimate – but hardly less political – reason for making the announcement, now.

The human genome has been hyped as the “human blueprint.” The idea being that the genome, consisting of about 100,000 genes all lined up, one after another, is the unique plan – drawn up by an architect – for building, step by step, an individual human being. But the genome isn’t much like a blueprint. A better analogy would be a library, containing more than 100,000 books, most of which are never ever read by anyone. They just sit, unused and gathering dust, in the library.

And even when the books – the genes – are checked out and read, there are frequently several books that apparently have to be checked out and read at the same time. So, some books are never checked out. Some are only checked out once. Some are checked out time and time again. And many are checked out in sets.

There have been two approaches to cataloging the human genome “library.” One approach, taken by the Human Genome Project, funded by the U.S. government and a British charitable foundation, is to start at one end of the genome and catalog – sequentially – every word on every page of every book in the library. The other approach, taken by Celera, a U.S. private-sector firm, is to sequence principally the books that actually get checked out and read. Mixing metaphors, what Celera did is sometimes called “cherry picking.”

The reason Celera was able to cherry pick was that they were not so concerned with having the total end-to-end genetic sequence, they just wanted to sequence individual genes, and the relative sequencing of those genes. They didn’t need or want to start at one end of the genome and go step by step, gene by gene, codon by codon, base pair by base pair, from one end to the other. Instead, they cut the genome up, randomly, into DNA fragments of different lengths. Once each fragment had been sequenced, the fragments were then computer matched with other overlapping fragments. The result was that instead of having one end-to-end sequence, Celera had more than 20 million overlapping fragments, which taken together, essentially covered the gene sequence from end to end.

So as of a few months ago, the Human Genome Project was still quite a ways from actually finishing the complete end-to-end sequencing of the human genome, whereas Celera had – for their purposes – done most of what they needed to do. In fact, Celera might not ever completely finish the sequencing of genes that never get checked out or read. What would be the point?

Now Celera is in business to make money for Celera stockholders. So Celera had been applying for patents on the books it sequenced as it sequenced them. Celera intended to recoup its investment of more than a half billion dollars by licensing the use of its patented intellectual property to drug companies. That is, to rent out the books in the Celera library to those who intended to profit from having rented those books. And the books in the Celera library were those that frequently get “checked out” from the human genome library. Celera was willing to provide the books free of charge to university scientists who had no intention of reselling or profiting from Celera intellectual property.

But the Brit-American publicly funded Human Genome Project objected to what Celera was doing and intended to do, and they had powerful supporters. So on March 14, 2000, after talks between Celera and the Human Genome Project broke down, President Clinton and Prime Minister Blair issued a joint statement that took the position that all the books in the human genome library should be made available for free to anyone wishing to check them out. No one was to profit from sequencing the human genome. The Clinton-Blair announcement caused that day the second largest point drop in NASDAQ history. Celera’s stock dropped about 25 percent in a matter of hours.

So the most likely reason for the Clinton-Blair photo-op last Monday is that Celera, having been bludgeoned into submission by Clinton-Blair a few months back, has finally agreed to some compromise with Clinton-Blair. Presumably Celera will be allowed to do something to try to recoup their half-billion dollar investment.

So maybe it wasn’t a cynical Clinton-Blair photo-op after all. Maybe they weren’t really announcing with great fanfare that the Human Genome Project was still a long way from completely sequencing the Human Genome. Maybe it was really a Clinton-Blair victory party to which the private-sector losers were invited to attend.

Political Theatre

LRC Blog

LRC Podcasts