We’ve learned nothing from the human genome, admits Venter

Craig Venter (AP Photo/ Matt Houston)

At a brief count, one major source summarised between 300 and 350 new scientific papers last week. That’s not bad for seven days in a quiet summer. Of course they varied both in subject and quality but characteristically they were claiming some important new discovery or breakthrough which was about to change the world. More careful examination,even of a sample, suggests that much of the information is trivial, or simply a variation on knowledge which is common in the scientific community. And so often a breakthrough promises more than it can deliver, or tells us of the several years we must wait until we can get practical benefit from the discovery – if ever.

But this has seldom been better illustrated than by the interview between Der Spiegel and Craig Venter. Craig Venter, you will recall, is the controversial scientist playing a highly successful part in the completion of the human genome project. More recently, he succeeded in producing a synthetic bacterium in his quest to establish the minimum genetic code required for a living and reproducing organism.

The meat of the interview was examining just how much benefit has been achieved, or may be achieved in a reasonable time scale, from this scientific triumph. The analysis of the human genome was, at the time, presented as the route to the eradication of many diseases, and to practical methodologies for endowing new human beings with a cluster of desirable, improved characteristics.

Venter’s answer is succinct: “We have learned nothing from the human genome.” You couldn’t, he says, even tell the colour of his eyes from his genome. And much of the information about disease is restricted to measuring marginally raised probabilities. When he is asked what would be needed to make real medical advance through this route he replies:

“For that to happen we need a lot more information: Information about your body’s chemistry, your physiology, your complete medical history, your brain and your entire life. We would need to do that a million times on different people and correlate that data with their genetic information.”

So genetic nirvana is some way off as yet.

Venter, in fact, shows far more interest in his artificial bacterium. He believes that “Everything that we make from oil will at some point be made by bacteria or other cells. Whether that is in five, 10 or 20 years is unclear.” But what confidence should we have in his forecast?

Much of the interview is peppered with sideswipes at other scientists. In fact this kind of infighting is far more typical of the scientific world than the sage, cooperative search for knowledge we might imagine. So we are left wondering how much of Venter’s views is objective analysis and how much is contaminated by his need to score points. But you can form your own opinion from the interview itself.

Quentin de la Bédoyère blogs on science and faith at