The response has been quick and some would say, somewhat unusual. Yesterday, outspoken scientist Craig Venter announced that he had secretly completed a study of the microbes that live in and among the human body. Such microbes are thought to play key roles in almost every aspect of human health. Venter’s sneaking into this field under the radar has both amazed and astonished researchers in the field.
But his old competitors from the human genome project did not take it lightly. Today, Francis Collins, Director of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) has announced a new 500 million dollar project to produce a competing version of the human microbiome.
“Who does he think he is?” Collins said on Meet the Press this Sunday where he was to talk about his new book on science and religion. “We went through this once before. We will not let him win this race either.”
And as before, Collins apparently has the full weight of the government behind him. “We are announcing a new major initiative in really completing the human microbiome. As with the human genome, Venter words mean little here. The methods he used in his microbiome study simply cannot do the job well. We will have to pick up the slack once again.”
When asked to comment Venter said “This whole thing is ridiculous. Do they not have anything better to do?”
Tony Fauci, Director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), said “Normally I would not comment on initiatives by other NIH agencies, but in this case I really have to. Microbes are under the NIAID umbrella. What does Francis think the ‘human” part of NHGRI means?”
The controversy lit up the email networks yesterday, with hundreds of scientists signing a petition condemning Collins and the NHGRI for letting this prize slip through their fingers. “It is embarrassing. While the NHGRI has been spending money to sequencing a million different fungi and every type of mammal on the planet, we missed out on the most important study of our lifetimes,” said a tired and frustrated David Relman from Stanford.
But Collins and his coworkers at NHGRI do not accept the criticism. Eric Lander, from the Broad Institute said, “Listen. Venter simply does not know what he is doing. Phil Green and I did a study last night that proves that shotgun sequencing cannot work on uncultured microbes. You simply cannot get enough material for sequencing and the microbes are way too small to collect reliably.” Lander and Green claim to have submitted a paper describing their findings early this morning.
Collins said, “We have a commitment from all of the centers originally involved in sequencing the human genome. We will shift all our resources to finish this work as fast as God allows.”
Perhaps the most surprising part of the whole controversy is that all of the people involved in the NHGRI microbiome effort have connections to start up companies working in the area of human microbiome research. In contrast, Venter has released the data free to the world. Yesterday Venter said “I learned my lesson with Celera. After I left there it was quite a task to get access to my own genome. So this time I put my microbiome into Genbank as quickly as possible.”
When Collins was asked about the connections to private corporations he said, “Under Clinton, such connections were frowned upon. With Bush in office we are encouraged to build upon the public’s work through private enterprise. We specifically discussed the new program at a prayer breakfast yesterday. Bush is all for it.”
However, it is not clear if this is really going to turn out like the human genome race. Venter, for his part says “Well, I am completely perplexed. How exactly can we have a race when we are done and have moved on to other things.” Collins says, “It is not for Venter to decide if there is a race. We are in this for the long haul. If he quits so be it.”
This time apparently, there will be no agreement signed at the White House, and no tie declared. Lander adds “With Venter you never know. He is always five steps ahead of us in every area. But we will catch him one of these days.”