October 23, 2002

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techsploitation
by annalee newitz

$1,000 genome

I THINK I managed to catch the infamous Craig Venter off guard when I started grilling him about whether he might someday own my genetic data. Venter, as biotech geeks will recall, is the man whose former company Celera won the race to map the human genome. While his milestone achievement was celebrated on the front pages of Science and the New York Times, his critics are vocal and numerous. Many have questioned the accuracy of his "shotgun" sequencing methods, as well as his motivations: before Venter was ousted, Celera's business model consisted of selling genomic data to the highest bidder rather than releasing the information freely to anyone. Celera's model stood in sharp contrast to that of the government-funded Human Genome Project, whose data you can download or browse at www.genome.gov.

Venter is a scientist who talks more like a politician than like a geek. I know this for certain because several days ago I was visiting the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Mass., and I happened to attend a guest lecture he was delivering to a biology class. I have to admit, it was pretty sneaky of me to go all journalist on Venter when he'd been told to expect a classroom full of adoring undergraduates. But when he started talking about the $1,000 genome, I just couldn't help it.

I think Venter really believes he's on the final frontier when it comes to genomic research, but it's not necessarily a scientific frontier. It's more like the Microsoft frontier: bringing other people's great ideas to the masses, for a price. Venter has spent the past several weeks publicizing the fact that his new organization is aiming to sequence people's genomes at a thousand bucks a pop. "I think we'll probably start with celebrity genomes," he told the audience of wide-eyed protobiologists. "But the point is to get as many as possible into our database." I imagined teenage girls blowing wads of cash to find out whether their genome shared sequences with Avril Lavigne's or Reese Witherspoon's.

Although the technology to sequence human genomes for a thousand bucks doesn't exist yet, I think it's reasonable to believe that Venter's new outfit will be up and running in the next decade.

Still, if it didn't have such creepy implications, the whole $1,000 genome project would almost sound like selling moon rocks. Given that we know so little about the human genome, and given that sequencing techniques are far from perfect, it's hard to say how much real scientific value you'd get out of paying Venter that thousand. It would be a genome-age novelty item for the rich and bored. But what would Venter, bio-entrepreneur extraordinaire, do with all that genetic data we'd be paying him to produce?

"What if you sequence my genome and find out that I have some genes with interesting and unique properties?" I asked. "Who will own that data?" Looking at the floor with a half-smile, Venter evasively replied, "Well, you'd get a copy of the data." Did he mean I'd be licensing the data from him, the way I license Windows XP? I asked for clarification. Finally, after much hedging, Venter explained that the genomic data he gathered would be in a public database but that "probably it will belong to the nonprofit organization." So I'd be paying him to sequence my genome, but I wouldn't own the data.

At the end of his lecture Venter unveiled one of the real goals of his new work. We stared at a PowerPoint slide that displayed the image of a card that looked a lot like a driver's license. Only it was issued by the "US Department of Genetic Identification," an imaginary government agency that Venter predicted would exist in the future. This agency would use the biotech Venter's lab is developing to sequence your genome on the cheap and associate its unique code with an ID card the moment you were born. Not only will Venter have a chance to own your genomic data in the future, but the government will too. As an aside, Venter noted that policy makers ought to create genetic antidiscrimination laws to go along with genetic identity tracking.

After he concluded, I chatted with Venter a bit more about his ideas on genomes and ownership. Despite the fact that Celera had tried to patent a number of genes and certain parts of the cell involved in gene transcription, Venter denied that one could possibly gain anything from patenting parts of my genome or anyone else's.

"Are you covering patents in this class?" Venter asked the professor who'd invited him to speak.

"No, we have more important things to do," the professor replied, looking at me disapprovingly.

It was time to go. Before we left, Venter couldn't resist a final joke. "So, do you have any good genes to give us?" he asked me. "What do you have?"

Annalee Newitz (freesequence@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd who's got your fucking genome right here. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.