Code Control, Part Four

UW Focus is on Technology Development

Given such complexity, scientists had to develop potent new techniques and technologies before they could bite off the entire human genome instead of nibbling at small pieces as they had done before the Human Genome Project.

The UW's Olson pioneered some of those techniques. In fact, last year Olson received a City of Medicine award recognizing that work. The award states that without Olson's development of a yeast artificial cloning system and introduction of certain mapping markers in the 1980s, sequencing the human genome "would not have been possible."

Olson came to the UW from Washington University in St. Louis—another Human Genome Project site—in 1992 as a founding member of Leroy Hood's molecular biotechnology department. The UW Human Genome Center took shape in 1994 when the University applied for and received federal funding to host a Human Genome Project sequencing center. Not only did that place the UW in an elite group, it helped the University pursue one of its own priorities.

UW scientists Maynard Olson (left) and Philip Green stand in a genetics research lab in Fluke Hall. The two take a dim view of the commercial side of human genetics research done be Celera Genomics Group, Inc. Photo by Kathy Sauber.

UW scientists Maynard Olson (left) and Philip Green stand in a genetics research lab in Fluke Hall. The two take a dim view of the commercial side of human genetics research done be Celera Genomics Group, Inc. Photo by Kathy Sauber.

"The UW has focused on the technology development aspects of human genome sequencing (such as Green's software programs), which required that we had a center that did enough sequencing that our technology would be taken seriously," explains Olson.

Olson has long championed the quest for the human genome. When other scientists argued that the Human Genome Project would divert too many resources from other important work, "I argued it would energize other research," he says.

And it has—with the ripples spreading wider every day. "I get asked to talk to different departments at the UW all the time that before never had much interest in genetics," he says.

While Olson is passionate about pursuit of the human genome—"I think history will look back on the Human Genome Project as a fundamental transformation of human knowledge"—the UW professor of medicine is conservative about how long it will take for mainstream medical benefits to flow from the project. His estimate: 10 to 20 years.

Code Control pull quote.

One remaining hurdle is completing the genomes of other organisms with DNA similar to humans, which will give scientists a way to compare and experiment when they find common genes.

"There've been many times when the leadership would have preferred I was more unequivocally enthusiastic about the immediate ... impact of what was being done," says Olson. "It is very exciting. I'm just cautious about claims that it's going to lead rapidly to greatly improved health care."

On the other hand, there's nothing cautious about Olson's comments concerning the approach and motives of Celera. "I've been known as a critic of the private project," he says.

Debates over techniques and results aside, Olson accuses Celera of "science by press release." As a private company, it closely controls information about its research. Furthermore, it "misrepresents" the significance of some results—a product of pressure to justify investment in the company, he says.

According to Olson, it's a poor precedent for the future of science, which traditionally has relied on open publishing and vigorous peer reviews—formal and informal—to ensure accuracy and spur progress. "That is not the way we want science to develop generally and certainly not in an area as sensitive as the human genome," he says.

Code Control pull quote.

Celera did not respond to requests to comment for this story, but Venter told PBS that the consortium would have dragged its feet for several more years if not for competition from Celera. "We made things go faster," he said. In an Associated Press interview, he called Celera's data "substantially superior" and criticism of his work "one of the sadder parts of science."

"There's two ways to get ahead in science," Venter continued, "one is to do something that is significant, and the other way is to criticize someone who has done something significant. We've chosen the former; some of our critics have chosen the latter."

Nevertheless, Green and others fret about private companies "locking up" fundamental scientific information. While Celera did eventually publish its draft human genome sequence, it has never made its research freely available on an ongoing basis and continues to curb broad access to its data. What's more, the company's recently finished version of a mouse genome—considered critical to understanding the human genome—will not be fully published to guard the data's commercial value.

By contrast, the consortium places its data in the public domain daily for unfettered use by the world's scientists—even those at Celera. That is the way fundamental science should be practiced, says Green. "You make discoveries and other people build on those discoveries."

In that sense, the Human Genome Project is a mighty foundation upon which researchers at the UW and elsewhere can base a lifetime of work. Among them is Debbie Nickerson.

Nickerson, associate professor of molecular biotechnology at the UW, is using Human Genome Project data to search for single nucleotide polymorphisms—variations from the consensus DNA sequence that make each individual unique.

It's exciting work. This is where scientists will discover genes that may promote or discourage various health problems. They may even find genes that explain why some people live longer than others, says Nickerson.

Just don't expect blockbuster results anytime soon. Not only must scientists identify particular polymorphisms, they must consider the way they interact with other genes and with the environment, says Nickerson.

"We have the code now," says Nickerson, "but fully understanding the code is the work of a whole other generation and beyond." —Brad Broberg is a longtime South King County journalist and free-lancer. His December 2000 Columns article on Kennewick Man, "Bones of Contention," won first place awards in two regional journalism competitions.

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