Spiegel has a wonderful interview with Venter. The more I hear from Venter, the more I like him; he’s very much a no-BS sort of fellow. He’s the guy who really drove the human genome project to completion, and he’s entirely open about explaining that its medical significance was grossly overstated.
SPIEGEL: So the significance of the genome isn’t so great after all?
Venter: Not at all. I can tell you from my own experience. I put my own genome on the Internet. People had the notion this was the scariest thing out there. But what happened? Nothing.
There really was a lot of hysteria in the early days about how the insurance companies would abuse the information in the genome, and there was also the GATTACA dystopia. None of it has, and I daresay none of it will, come to pass.
Venter: That’s what you say. And what else have I learned from my genome? Very little. We couldn’t even be certain from my genome what my eye color was. Isn’t that sad? Everyone was looking for miracle ‘yes/no’ answers in the genome. “Yes, you’ll have cancer.” Or “No, you won’t have cancer.” But that’s just not the way it is.
SPIEGEL: So the Human Genome Project has had very little medical benefits so far?
Venter: Close to zero to put it precisely.
SPIEGEL: Did it at least provide us with some new knowledge?
Venter: It certainly has. Eleven years ago, we didn’t even know how many genes humans have. Many estimated that number at 100,000, and some went as high as 300,000. We made a lot of enemies when we claimed that there appeared to be considerably fewer — probably closer to the neighborhood of 40,000! And then we found out that there are only half as many. I was just in Stockholm for the 200th anniversary of the Karolinska Institute. The first presentation was about the many achievements the decoding of the genome has brought. Then I spoke and said that this century will be remembered for how little, and not how much, happened in this field.
Hmmm…I seem to recall that Venter’s company was one that was trying to patent an inflated number of genes, which contradicts what he’s claiming here. But otherwise, yes, the HGP isn’t yet a source of useful medical information, but it’s a trove of scientific information; I’d also add that the technology race put a lot of useful techniques in our hands.
Venter: Exactly. Why did people think there were so many human genes? It’s because they thought there was going to be one gene for each human trait. And if you want to cure greed, you change the greed gene, right? Or the envy gene, which is probably far more dangerous. But it turns out that we’re pretty complex. If you want to find out why someone gets Alzheimer’s or cancer, then it is not enough to look at one gene. To do so, we have to have the whole picture. It’s like saying you want to explore Valencia and the only thing you can see is this table. You see a little rust, but that tells you nothing about Valencia other than that the air is maybe salty. That’s where we are with the genome. We know nothing.
Exactly! Traits are products of overlapping networks of genes. Venter also explains that a lot of the effects of genes are developmental, so you can’t expect to be able to take a pill to correct something that went wrong in the assembly process in the embryo.
Here’s my favorite exchange from the interview.
Venter: Yes, and I find them frightening. I can read your genome, you know? Nobody’s been able to do that in history before. But that is not about God-like powers, it’s about scientific power. The real problem is that the understanding of science in our society is so shallow. In the future, if we want to have enough water, enough food and enough energy without totally destroying our planet, then we will have to be dependent on good science.
SPIEGEL: Some scientist don’t rule out a belief in God. Francis Collins, for example …
Venter: … That’s his issue to reconcile, not mine. For me, it’s either faith or science – you can’t have both.
SPIEGEL: So you don’t consider Collins to be a true scientist?
Venter: Let’s just say he’s a government administrator.