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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.
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.
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.