When President Clinton held a press conference last June to mark what was billed as one of the most important scientific milestones of the century--the cracking of the human genetic code--two men stood together on a White House podium to share the credit. As leaders of competing genome projects, Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, and J. Craig Venter, president of Celera Genomics, were recognized, correctly, as the two most important players in the worldwide effort to spell out the 3 billion "letters" of the human genome--the biochemical recipe, encoded in our DNA, for manufacturing and operating a complete human being.
Yet while scientific diplomacy required that Venter and Collins get equal recognition for this epochal achievement, insiders knew that, to paraphrase George Orwell, one man was more equal than the other. The genome would certainly have been sequenced if Craig Venter had never been born. But if he hadn't decided to attack the problem with a radical approach, using the most sophisticated computer technology available, and to drive the effort with the full force of his rebellious personality, it would have taken years longer to complete. By forcing Collins and his colleagues to double and redouble the pace of their work, Venter guaranteed that the scientific rewards and potentially lifesaving medical treatments derived from decoding our genes would start to pour in almost half a decade earlier than anyone had expected.
Beyond that, their equal billing at last summer's announcement belied the fact that Venter's version of the genome was more complete than Collins'. Venter's contribution, asserts Victor McKusick, the Johns Hopkins researcher who is considered the grandfather of medical genetics, was "spectacular."
That is an understatement. Having the genome in hand will almost certainly be seen as one of the crowning achievements of the new century, no matter what else happens in the next 100 years. The genome--or, more precisely, the individual genes it contains--spell out the instructions for constructing the protein building blocks of every cell in every tissue of the body. This so-called book of life will inevitably reveal secrets of both health and disease, promising new treatments for virtually every malady that afflicts us. Heart disease, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, mental illnesses of all sorts will almost certainly yield to a new generation of genome-based medicines that will make antibiotics and other modern drugs seem prehistoric.
Comparing the human genome with those of other organisms, from bacteria to insects to mammals, will help biologists understand how more complex species evolved from simpler ones--and even pinpoint the precise bits of genetic information that are uniquely human. "It has to be a milestone in human history when you have a first look at your instruction book," says James Watson, who with Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA a half-century ago. "Having this book will change the world."