Although slated as a probing discussion of "ethical and social issues surrounding the human genome," genomics pioneer Craig Venter's speech delivered a chronicle of the genetic revolution that pertained more to science than to ethics in Friday's Boyarski Lecture in Law, Medicine & Ethics.
Venter, president of the Center for the Advancement of Genomics and Time magazine's 2000 Scientist of the Year, founded Celera Genomics, a private corporation which is credited as the first to sequence and analyze the human genome. His work also includes the development of expressed sequence tags as well as the first DNA sequencing of a living organism.
The speech provided insight into the processes and chronology of the human genome project, beginning with its inaugural moments in the late 1980s through his future hopes for the role of science in the 21st century. Even though much of the current debate rests mainly on the ethical issues of genomic studies, Venter made clear his mindset regarding his work.
"It's important to have ethics drive science," he said. "While I agree with that, I think it's much more important to have science and scientific fact drive the ethical discussion."
Venter also reflected on the daunting task of mapping the entire human genome.
"We were the first ones to look at the human genome and we had to describe it in a way that was both meaningful and scientifically rigorous," he said. "The Celera team had the task of coming up with new algorithms and to write half a million lines of code to work on the first try."
Celera used "whole genome shotgun" mapping to sequence the genome. Despite flying against the standard of the day, the method was the determining factor that allowed Celera to complete the sequence in the short span of three years.
Venter noted the level of doubt and opposition he faced in his studies. The National Institute of Health, for example, did not support his first genomic project and he had to seek funding elsewhere.
The genome shotgun method was overlooked by many in the scientific community including the rival Sanger Institute, Venter said, who added that he felt vindicated by its success. He joked that while the Sanger Institute spent three years attempting to map the malaria-causing pathogen using older methods, Celera was able to map not only malaria, but also the human genome, rat genome and fruit fly genome.
Venter also shared his fears of the negative impact of the genomic revolution, commenting on the anti-genetic discrimination bill currently opposed by the White House. "My biggest fear is bad science and bad reporting of science driving the next century," Venter said.
He closed with a hopeful outlook for the future, especially for the role of technology in science.
"For the first time in history, the advances in biology and medicine are absolutely pinned to the [advances in technology]," he said.
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The speech was well received for its insight on the changing state of science. "We're moving into a different phase of knowledge and we need to be keenly aware of the ethical implications," said Scott Byington, a teacher of biology and advanced biology at the Cary Academy, who came with many of his high school students.
Some in the audience, however, felt the speech failed to tackle the ethical implications surrounding the issue, including scientists "playing God," biological warfare and cloning.
"He didn't address enough of the controversial issues," said Emily Lin, a graduate student in the molecular genetics and microbiology department.
Despite its shortcomings, the speech proved for many to be an eye-opener.
"It's easy to forget what kind of revolution is going on, but it's really amazing," said freshman Linda Arnade.