...Venter and I
a plan for a
years and more than $50 million to identify
this one gene for this one disease.”
Worse still, many diseases are far more
complex than cystic fibrosis, because they’re
caused by the interaction of several genes.
About this time, James Watson, one of the
discoverers of DNA’s double helix structure, had launched the Human Genome
Project, to create the comprehensive
genetic blueprints Collins and other
But Watson left the project in 1992
during an argument with his boss, and
Collins was surprised when the federal
government asked him to take over. He
was reluctant to work for the government,
but he couldn’t resist the historic scientific
Collins spent the next few years developing much faster methods for documenting DNA sequences, but these methods
attracted a competitor: Celera Genomics, a
private, for-profit company embodied by
its CEO, Craig Venter. Celera kept the
results of its own genome effort secret.
“The idea that the human genome
sequence might become private property
was deeply distressing,” Collins wrote. Cel-
era shot back that Collins’ effort was too
slow and bureaucratic.
“Would … our shared inheritance
become a commercial commodity, or a
universal public good?” Collins fretted in
his book. “No effort could now be spared
by our team. Our 20 public genome centers in six countries ran around the clock.”
The now-faster public effort mapped
90 percent of human genes in the next
year and a half, releasing all the new data
into the public domain each day, preventing it from being patented and letting
researchers use it right away.
All the while, the media fixated on the
race to the finish. Disturbed by that publicity, Collins got a mutual friend to “set up a
secret meeting” with Venter, he wrote.
“Over beer and pizza in [the friend’s] base-ment,Venter and I worked out a plan for a
And so both men appeared with President Clinton in the White House East
Room in June 2000 to jointly announce
the completion of the genome’s first draft.
“Today,” Clinton said, using language
Collins encouraged, “we are learning the
language in which God created life.”
Collins was dismayed
by the competition
with the for-profit
Celera and the
prospect the genome
might become private property. He
made peace with
Venter, and they
Clinton and on the
cover of Time.