The Genome’s Best Duel’s Post-Duel

As is tradition, I was reading the latest edition Nature while watching the Duke-Butler NCAA Men’s Basketball Finals.

What, that isn’t your tradition?

It so happened that the correlation was apt. Nature featured a special section on the 10th year anniversary of the completed human genome, including articles from the two central characters of the most entertaining science-based bout of the nineties: Francis Collins and Craig Venter. While it was a very important milestone for genetics, molecular biology and medicine, many will remember it for being the most entertaining science-based confrontations since…well, can you even think of one?

There are two reason that comparing the Collins/Venter bout to anything is difficult. First is the dissonance in stereotypes. The fight was really between government-funded and industry-funded science. In the scenario, the government could have easily been considered the bad guy. Problem was, the government side was run by a super nice, soft-spoken uber nerd– not what you’re looking for in an arch-villain. On the other side was Celera, the upstart company challenging the system, daring to use techniques that the Establishment considered messy and inelegant. It was called “shotgun,” for crying out loud. The company could easily have come off as the David to the government’s Goliath, except (a) they weren’t exactly small, and (b) the guy who was running the company had a reputation for being…the opposite of nice. People wanting to choose sides had to choose between both methodology and personality, practice and principle. How do you choose between the good/bad guy and the bad/good guy? Maybe we’ll know by the end of Lost, but right now it’s hard.

The second reason is that the struggle really ended in a tie. How many great bouts ended in a draw? Maybe there are comparisons in soccer or chess, but that’s hard to comprehend while watching a basketball game. Both Collins and Venter began their articles by remembering standing their moment together on the podium with President Clinton, a moment that took a required of political savvy on all sides. But the lingering question is, did both of them win? That may be ideal for parties that wanted to work together, but it isn’t savory for two parties that remained in ideological opposition. A decade later, modern methodology favors Celera, but the NIH hasn’t exactly lost any clout in the scientific community. That means lingering tension and debate. Just because a decision is civil doesn’t make it satisfying.

Still, the genome was sequenced a long time ago. We’ve mostly moved on to greater things, as both writers point out. But the spirit of fan-dom, even in science, demands some kind of historical, debatable context. Yet there remains no easy analogy. Maybe the readers can find a good comparison. Maybe there isn’t one. But it was one heck of a bout that, unlike Duke-Butler, probably hasn’t fully played out.

(Shameless plug: if you like or have like Renaisauce articles, vote for him on the scientificblogging.com graduate student article competition for his entry, “Interface:Opening the Mind to the Open Brain.” You can vote every day until the end of the month, if you want. There’s nothing in it for you except generalized gratitude from someone you never met, but isn’t that enough?)

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