“The Sequence” portrays genomic explosion

It isn’t the fault of the playwright Paul Mullin that his wonderful play, “The Sequence” promises a brilliant future. The voices sound rapturous, but a bit hollow, decades after those promises.

The actors who did a professional reading on Oct.5 will repeat that on Oct. 12 and Oct. 13 at the Bathhouse Theater, in cooperation with Seattle Public Theater. The three characters are Francis Collins, who is currently the head of the National Institutes of Health, and Craig Venter, a researcher credited with accelerating the project to decode the genome. The play concerns itself with both real events leading up to the 2003 success at mapping the genome, and adds a fictional journalist character.

When Mullin wrote his play, almost 10 years ago, the race to sequence the human genome seemed destined to shine a bright light of understanding on many areas of human disease. The logic of the time was  that once scientists sequenced the genetic code inside every cell that governs making proteins,  they could intervene to save people from mistakes in that code.

But from today’s perspective, the grand pronouncements and predictions seem quaintly simplistic. Yes, some new therapeutics rely on genetic insight for their actions on cells, but the staggering complexity of how the environment acts on the genome is stifling most direct gene therapy.

The “light” shown by the decoding revealed other “omes.” As if decoding just showed how many other codes are at work.  For example, proteomics is the study of how every one of thousands of proteins interact, a code requiring cloud computing and big data searches for patterns to even get a handhold on understanding what some call “systems” biology. There is also microbiomics, which is the study of how the microbes inside the human body can influence the production of those proteins. The list includes metabolomics, nutrigenomics, and others.

When explorers Lewis and Clark set off across the North American continent, they scaled the Rockies believing this was the pinnacle of their challenge on their way west. Alas, when they spied the Cascade Range further to the west, reports are they saw “mountains beyond mountains.” I have always thought that is an apt metaphor for the Human Genome project. It illuminated the mountain ranges of understanding that now remain.

Experts will be on hand to answer your questions following both of the upcoming performances.


Great special publication by The Scientist on the future of genomics