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The Common ThreadReview - The Common Thread
A Story of Science, Politics, Ethics and the Human Genome
by John Sulston and Georgina Ferry
Joseph Henry Press, 2002
Review by Martin Hunt
May 21st 2003 (Volume 7, Issue 21)

The Common Thread tells about the Human Genome Project from the perspective of its first director, John Sulston. The book is co-authored by Georgina Ferry. The story told is two-fold. First, there is the story of the genesis of the Human Genome Project and how Sulston came to be director. The HGP is a huge project; it is science on an industrial scale with budgets in the billions of dollars and huge factory-labs employing thousands of scientific workers running banks of extremely expensive analytical equipment. Sulston and Ferry provide an insider's view of the creation of such an organization. Alongside the story of the creation of the HGP is another story about how the HGP fought to keep the human genome in the public domain. The idea that the human genome could become private property sounds absurd. Yet, major private industrial interests almost succeeded in turning our genetic heritage into their own private "intellectual property".

The HGP was created about 10 years ago to create the first complete sequence of all the genes in the human genome. This tremendous endeavor required the creation, more or less from scratch, of a vast organization that takes a significant part of the entire world's scientific budget. Sulston is modest about his role in this. From start to finish he expresses amazement at the unlikeliness of the position and role that he found himself in. Certainly, Sulston was a lucky man. Very few people have the opportunity to follow their interest, without ambition, and to have it work out so well. Projects like the HGP are very large and they seem very impersonal and inhuman. For the outside observer the resultant organizations seem almost like forces of nature. Yet, as "The Common Thread" reveals, they were created by people, acting in particular circumstances; they are the result of personal human relationships and interactions.

Money is important for projects like the HGP. The sequence, recently completed, has cost billions of dollars. The Wellcome Trust, a private trust that supports medical research, was one of the critical sources of capital for the HGP. Private wealth is presented as having two very different faces in "The Common Thread". On the one hand we have the positive example of the Wellcome Trust where the private control of a huge pool of capital enabled the initiative to advance projects like the sequencing of the human genome. Also, the Wellcome Trust had the independence and initiative to insist that the information released by the sequencing of the human genome must be freely available to anyone who wants it.

On the other hand we have the negative example of Celera Genomics, a private competitor to the HGP. Every narrative needs a villain, and the villain in this story is Celera. Celera attempted, by using information already generated by the public project to complete the sequencing first - with the intention of charging other researchers fees for access to that information. As the Wellcome Trust shows capitalism at its best, Celera shows capitalism at its worst. Happily, in this story, the good guys win.

A very significant thing is that it took other private interests to resist corporations like Celera. As Sulston and Ferry make clear, it was the Wellcome Trust, a private foundation that finances medical research that provided the crucial support that allowed the HGP to grow to fruition. In the end, most of the funding for the HGP came from various government sources from countries around the world, notably the US and the UK. Yet, unless I'm misinterpreting Sulston badly, without the example provided by the Wellcome Trust, governments might not have been able to resist the lobbying by companies like Celera.

The Common Thread is an enjoyable book. It does not provide a deep view of either the science involved in sequencing a genome nor of the technology. This is not a flaw, for the scientific and technical matters have been dealt with extensively elsewhere. What we see instead is a glimpse of what science is like to a scientist. The story that Sulston and Ferry tell is an important one. We tend to see science, especially big industrial science, as being intrinsically inhuman. What Sulston and Ferry reveal is that human concerns, from wonder and a desire to be a benefit to the whole human race, to greed and manipulation, operate even at the highest levels of big science. Science doesn't come from aliens - it comes from us.

 

2003 Martin Hunt

 

Martin Hunt is an artist living and working in Vancouver, Canada. His work is inspired by math and science. Lately he's been indulging an interest in evolutionary theory and its relation to consciousness.


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