Start your WatsonVenter chimera now

3 minute read

Nicholas Wade writes about the sequencing of James Watson's genome:

A copy of his genome, recorded on two DVDs, was presented to Dr. Watson yesterday in a ceremony in Houston by Richard A. Gibbs, director of the Human Genome Sequencing Center at the Baylor College of Medicine, and by Jonathan M. Rothberg, founder of the company 454 Life Sciences.
"I am thrilled to see my genome," Dr. Watson said.

...which is approximately the same size and shape as the boxed set of Ishtar!

This bit is very interesting:

Some 3.5 percent of Dr. Watson's genome could not be matched to the reference genome. One reason may be that the project scientists had to amplify human DNA by growing it in bacteria and may have lost many regions of human DNA that are toxic to bacteria, said Dr. Egholm, 454's vice president for research. The 454 sequencer skips the bacteria stage entirely and is free of this source of bias.

I wonder if it's true. Then there's this:

Dr. Venter said his new genome had been assembled from scratch. There were many more differences than he had expected, including in single units of DNA that were extra or absent. "It's clear we have grossly underestimated the extent of human variation," he said.

Both the sequences are diploid, so you can look at variations between the two homologous chromosome sequences for the entire genome. This is actually a pretty good way to sample human variation: a single diploid genome contains a large (and predictable, depending on history) fraction of the total variation in the human species. Of course, lots of sequences together include even more information about variability. It's hard telling exactly what Venter means here (he is also shopping around an article about his genome to journals, so

There's some of the usual hand-wringing about how "someone" might misuse the now-public information:

Amy L. McGuire, a medical ethicist at the Baylor College of Medicine who was involved in the Watson sequencing project, said Dr. Watson and Dr. Venter were following the medical tradition of making oneself the first subject of a new experiment and would incur unknown risks.
"I think that both have been motivated by their commitment to the science and genomic medicine and advancing the field," Dr. McGuire said.

There's not much chance that anyone will do anything nefarious directly to Watson or Venter. What are they going to do? Send Jason Bourne out to Venter's boat to administer a Venter-specific toxin?

But then, there are the non-directly-nefarious-but-still-kinda-shady things.

Like, what if their genomes became a template for genetic alterations of other individuals or species? That is, suppose you wanted to add a garden-variety human gene to something -- like the insulin gene into a breed of corn. Now, that gene sequence has to come from somebody -- and you're more or less likely to pick it straight out of Genbank, so it's somebody anonymous. And the gene is probably functionally just like everyone else's, so the only thing that is at all "unique" or "distinguishing" about it is the silent nucleotides and introns, which may or may not be just like anyone else's.

Now, suppose you want to add a set of human genes -- like maybe, six or seven. And you think the genes might interact with each other in some way. To avoid unwanted interactions, you might pick all the genes from one individual, where you know that they didn't interact badly. Sure, you will test them in various models to make sure. But it's easy to pick all the genes from the same person. Make it Watson.

Heck, maybe you're cloning your child but want to correct a few genetic issues you don't care for. Or maybe you noticed what Venter said about variation, and want to plug in a few copy number variants that your genome is missing. Fill in the gaps with a few Watson genes. He can be the 0.1 percent daddy.

Oh, and how about those people trying to grow meat in a lab? Mmmmm... Venterlicious!