After the Genome, What Then?

This article will appear as the second epilogue to the chapter “The Dream of the Human Genome” in the paperback edition of Richard Lewontin’s It Ain’t Necessarily So: The Dream of the Human Genome and Other Illusions, to be published in October by New York Review of Books.

On Monday, February 12, 2001, The New York Times, on its front page above the fold, leaked the news that the two competing projects to sequence the human genome were about to announce on that very day that they had indeed located the Holy Grail. Then, on Thursday and Friday, the scientific papers giving the details appeared, surrounded by a penumbra of commentary, analysis, and promises of a rosy future for human health and self-knowledge. It might seem remarkable that both publicly funded and commercial projects should have independently accomplished their ends of sequencing the three billion nucleotides of the human genome, analyzing the sequence, and publishing their findings within a day of each other, but it was no coincidence. It was, in fact, the carefully prearranged and orchestrated outcome of a truce between the contenders announced at a joint press conference the previous June.

Their decision that the human DNA sequence was now definitively determined was an arbitrary one since there are admitted to be gaps amounting to about 6 percent of the sequence yet to be filled in. As in longstanding political struggle, the exhausted parties simply decide that enough is enough, but, as in political cases, some occasional sniper fire is still heard. So, Celera Genomics’ commercial project claims that its sequence is more accurate than the publicly funded one, while the International Human Genome Sequence Consortium claims that only by use of their publicly available intermediate results could Celera have assembled their sequence in the first place.

A small irony of the simultaneous publication is that the public project, supported in large part by American government funds, used as its vehicle the English commercial scientific journal Nature, owned by Macmillan, while the commercial Celera project used Science, the organ of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a nonprofit professional society. Some of the details of publication are immensely revealing of the sociology of science and scientific writing. Modern natural scientific work often requires the joint efforts of several professional participants, all of whom depend on publication for their career advancement and the acquisition of further research funding. The result has been the dominance of the jointly authored scientific report. The most recent issue of Genetics, the major international publication in the field, contains forty-one research papers, none of which was the product of only a single author.

As befits the monster human genome sequencing projects, their author lists are monsters: 275 authors for the commercial project and 250 for the International Consortium (both lists being characterized as “partial”). The order of authors is generally also of great import in the acquisition of scientific credit and the decoding of these lists would be an interesting exercise for…

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