Genetic Scientist: 'We Have Learned Nothing From the Genome'

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Adam Keiper at National Review's The Corner stumbles upon human-genome-sequencer J. Craig Venter "pooh-pooh[ing] the scientific achievement that helped catapult him to international celebrity." In a rather lively interview with Der Spiegel, the biologist-businessman takes a few swings at his former rivals and estimates the "medical benefits" of the Human Genome Project at "close to zero to put it precisely."

Just as concerns regarding the sequencing were ill-founded, Venter argues, so were the hopes. "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." Why was that? Because, he explains, we're just no good at reading the genome yet. "We couldn't even be certain what my eye color was. Isn't that sad?" He asks. Der Spiegel pushes back at Venter, with interesting results:

SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, Jim Watson, the co-discoverer of the DNA double helix, has said he doesn't want to know which variant of the so-called ApoE gene he has -- it could say something about his risk for developing Alzheimer's, and he's afraid of that …

Venter: That was silliness. At that age? Watson is over 80.

SPIEGEL: Are you interested in finding out what ApoE variant you have?

Venter: I know it. And according to it, I have a slightly increased risk for Alzheimer's disease. But it impresses me little because I could have dozens of other genes that counteract it. Because we do not know that, this information is meaningless.

The increased risk, too, explains Venter, is hard to parse. "How does a 1 or 3 percent increased risk for something translate into the clinic? It is useless information." In order to get something helpful, "we need a lot more information: Information about your body's chemistry, your physiology, your complete medical history, your brain and your entire life."

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Here, too, is one of the more forceful swipes Venter takes at Francis Collins of the National Institutes of Health, who previously competed with Venter to see who could map the human genome first:

SPIEGEL: Many fear what might happen if humans craft new life forms. They repeatedly say that you are playing God …

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.

Read the whole--highly entertaining--interview here.

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