July 29, 2010

ONLY INVENTIONS MATTER:

SPIEGEL Interview with Craig Venter: 'We Have Learned Nothing from the Genome': In a SPIEGEL interview, genetic scientist Craig Venter discusses the 10 years he spent sequencing the human genome, why we have learned so little from it a decade on and the potential for mass production of artificial life forms that could be used to produce fuels and other resources. (Der Spiegel, 7/28/10)

SPIEGEL: The decoding of your personal genome has so far revealed little more than the fact that your ear wax tends to be moist.

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.

SPIEGEL: Why is it taking so long for the results of genome research to be applied in medicine?

Venter: Because we have, in truth, learned nothing from the genome other than probabilities. How does a 1 or 3 percent increased risk for something translate into the clinic? It is useless information.

SPIEGEL: There are hundreds of hereditary diseases that can be traced to defects in individual genes. You can determine a lot more than just probabilities through them. But that still hasn't led to a flood of new treatments.

Venter: There were false expectations. Take Ataxia telangiectasia, for example, a horrible disease. The nervous system degenerates, and people who have it often die in their early teens. The cause is a defect in a single gene, but it is a developmental gene. If your body is built in the wrong way, then you can't just take a magic pill to rebuild it. If your brain is wired wrong, then it is wired wrong.

SPIEGEL: Who is to blame for those false expectations?

Venter: We were simply always looking at single genes because they were the only genes we had. When people lose their keys at night, they look under the lamp post. Why? Because that's where you can still see something.

SPIEGEL: But the keys are really located in the dark?

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.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 29, 2010 3:36 PM
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