Genomes and Hay
Chris Newstead, Head of Marketing Communications at the Wellcome Trust, ponders the human genome at the Hay Festival.
The mellifluent Katie Melua once pondered that there are six billion people in the world (more or less) and not surprisingly it made her feel quite small. It’s a good job she didn’t ponder the human genome – with its three billion DNA base pairs, she might have felt so small that to all practical purposes she’d no longer have existed.
This didn’t stop a discerning 500-strong crowd from pondering that very thing at the inaugural Wellcome Trust–Guardian Science Debate on ‘Ten Years of the Human Genome’.
The lecture was part of this year’s Literature Festival in Hay-on-Wye. Don’t be fooled by the wellies, tents and wooden walkways – under the flapping canvases some astonishing intellect is on show.
In one such tent, Sir John Sulston and Sir Martin Evans, the Nobel Laureates who pioneered work on sequencing the human genome and stem cell research respectively, spent an hour debating a decade of research alongside Michael Morgan, former Chief Executive of the Wellcome Trust Genome Campus.
Robin McKie, the Observer’s Science Editor who charismatically chaired proceedings, fielded two general questions: was the hype/hope that surrounded the publication of the human genome sequence in 2000 actually justified, and could its application remain in the public realm and out of private control?
To the first, the answer was unequivocally yes. From a research perspective the human genome sequence has had a phenomenal impact, highlighted first-hand by Evans’s work on knockout mice. From a clinical angle, it might not impact on your life today, or your children’s lives tomorrow. However, it will almost certainly be the key to unravelling and tackling human health conditions such as cancer and heart disease that may affect you in your lifetime, but will have a conceivably lesser impact on your grandchildren.
As for intellectual property, Sulston eloquently and passionately laid out the case for why the genome and its related applications should remain freely accessible to all. Privateers, it was felt, could only hinder research and fundamentally capitalise on that which is freely common to us all. Evans and Morgan both laid their support to this principle: for science to flourish it is essential that it remains, as much as possible, open to the public realm.