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A Totally Spooky Evening

By John Russell

June 14, 2005  | John Leslie’s shiny bald head, energetically bobbing up and down under the spotlight, was the perfect counterpoint to Frank Robinson’s plodding, meticulous phrasing. Who are they? Actors, of course, but for an evening last month, they were J. Craig Venter and Francis Collins trading insults, insights, and diametrically opposed viewpoints in the premier performance of Paul Mullin’s wonderful play, The Sequence*.

One can only imagine what Francis Collins was thinking as he sat in the front row, about 10 feet directly in front of Robinson. He allowed it was “totally spooky” afterwards. This was a staged reading, so the actors stayed put while spilling out the sometimes sordid details of the rivalry between the two men during the intense race between Celera Genomics, led by Venter, and the publicly funded International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium, of which Collins was a leader, to sequence the human genome. If you get the chance, this play is worth seeing.

Mullin, who never spoke with Venter or Collins while writing the play, borrowed judiciously from published comments to give the play the ring of authenticity. Both main characters are a little overdrawn, but that doesn’t detract from Mullin’s script, which pits the bully scientist-entrepreneur against the gentlemanly scientist-public servant. The play is funny, thoughtful, and in the end a good reminder that science — especially big-project science — is fueled by everything that makes us human.

Mullin invents a science reporter covering the race and uses her interactions with Venter and Collins to tell the story. There’s a little science, a little history, and lots of personal antagonism recounted — from the start of the feud, when Collins replaced James Watson as head of the NIH sequencing effort, to arguments over shotgun sequencing’s merit, to President Bill Clinton’s stock-crashing press conference, and eventually “the declaration” of a joint victory by British Prime Minister Tony Blair and President Clinton on June 25, 2000, at The White House, with the issuance of a rough draft of the human genome sequence.

The writing of The Sequence was funded in part by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and this first performance was sponsored by the Bio IT Coalition (we like their name), an organization that promotes biotechnology, bioinformatics, and computational biology along the mid-Atlantic region. The play was performed at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, following a fascinating, daylong Bio IT Coalition event, also held at George Mason.
Interestingly, Mullin confesses to being anything but a science junky. He was not initially excited by the suggested topic but became captivated by the public drama and personal rivalry during his research. He added a subplot between the reporter and her cancer-stricken, dying mother that is mildly distracting but not bothersome.

Spookier still was the April 26 staging of the performance, the same day that Celera announced it was abandoning its dwindling business of selling access to its proprietary sequence information. Celera will now donate much of its remaining data — about 30 million base pairs — to the public domain.

What marvelous irony. Celera’s withdrawal from selling sequence data is truly the end of an era. Data, it seems, really do want to be free over time.

Venter remains a lightning rod. Made rich by Celera, then unceremoniously fired, he sails to his own distinct compass, which now has him collecting sequence data on a round-the-world cruise retracing Darwin’s journey. Say what you want, he’s never dull. Collins remains the unflappable scientist-public servant, working behind the scenes and in public to develop a meaningful new mission for the National Human Genome Research Institute.

Whatever animosity exists between them, they jointly helped to chart previously unknown territory, and for that we give thanks.

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