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Smithsonian Videohistory Collection

DNA Sequencing
(RU 9549)


DNA is composed of the four individual nucleotides: adenine (A), thymine (T), cytosine (C), and guanine (G). To decipher a particular piece of DNA, it is necessary to determine the exact sequence of these nucleotides. The sequence of the nucleotides determines the genetic information encoded in a DNA strand. A partial nucleotide sequence for a human gene might look like: GGCACTGACTCTCTC. In 1977, biochemist Fred Sanger developed the enzymatic chain termination procedure that allowed for sequencing of individual strands of DNA. This made mapping and sequencing of genetic material possible.

In 1986, Leroy E. Hood's Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology (Cal Tech) announced its development of a semiautomated machine for sequencing DNA. The machine automated the enzymatic chain termination procedure for DNA sequence analysis developed by Sanger and became a key instrument in mapping and sequencing genetic material. That same year, Applied Biosystems, Inc. (ABI) produced the first commercial instruments for clinical use. Constant improvements in the technology resulted in faster sequencing capacity, which was significant for advanced scientific research in projects such as mapping the human genome.

Ramunas Kondratas, curator at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History (NMAH), was interested in documenting the history, development, and applications of the DNA Sequencer. He also explored the commercialization of the instrument, including its testing and marketing, and addressed current and future uses of the ABI 370A model sequencer in medical research. Sessions were recorded at Cal Tech in Pasadena, California on October 19, 1988, at ABI in Foster City, California on October 21, 1988, and at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Washington, D.C. on March 27, 1990.


Interviewees included scientists and technicians at Cal Tech, ABI, and NIH. Jeannine Gocayne received a M.A. in molecular biology from the State University of New York-Buffalo in 1985 and was appointed a biologist and sequencing supervisor with the Receptor Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Section of the Laboratory of Molecular and Cellular Neurobiology, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), NIH in 1986.

Leroy E. Hood received his M.D. from The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in 1964, and a Ph.D. in immunology from Cal Tech in 1968. From 1968 until 1970 he held a postdoctoral fellowship at NIH. In 1970 he was appointed professor of biology at Cal Tech and eventually became chairman of the Division of Biology and the director of its cancer center.

Michael Hunkapiller received a Ph.D. in chemistry from Cal Tech in 1974. He joined ABI as its vice president for research and development in 1983.

Robert J. Kaiser received his Ph.D in chemistry from Cal Tech in 1983, and subsequently joined the Cal Tech staff as a research fellow in biology. Jane Z. Sanders joined the Cal Tech staff in 1984 as an associate biologist and was appointed senior biologist a year later. She took graduate courses in biochemistry in 1971-72 at the Stanford University Medical School.

Lloyd M. Smith received a Ph.D. in biophysics from Stanford University in 1981, and was a senior research fellow in biology at Cal Tech from 1982 until 1987, when he was appointed assistant professor in the Analytical Division of the Department of Chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

J. Craig Venter received his Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology from the University of California, San Diego in 1975. In 1983 he was appointed adjunct professor of biochemical pharmacology at the State University of New York-Buffalo and joined NIH in 1984 as chief of the Receptor Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Section, NINDS. In 1987 he also became co-director of the Laboratory of Molecular and Cellular Neurobiology, NINDS, NIH and was appointed director of the NINDS DNA facility at NIH.

Several others provided additional information about the sequencer for the three video sessions. These people included: Kurt Becker, DNA Sequencing Product Manager; Kip Connell, research scientist; Marilee Shaffer, products specialist for DNA sequencing, ABI; and Anthony R. Kerlavage and W. Richard McCombie of the Receptor Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Section of the Laboratory of Molecular and Cellular Neurobiology, NINDS, NIH.

Video Sessions

This collection consists of three interview sessions, totalling approximately 8:40 hours of recordings, and 176 pages of transcript. There are three generations of tape for each session: originals, dubbing masters, and reference copies. In total, this collection is comprised of 26 original videotapes (26 Beta videotapes), 22 dubbing master videotapes (22 U-Matic videotapes), and 5 reference copy videotapes (5 VHS videotapes).

Session One (October 19, 1988), was recorded at Church Laboratory, Cal Tech, Pasadena, California. Hood, Kaiser, and Sanders discussed the history and development of the prototype DNA sequencer and ABI 370A, and activities in the lab, c. 1970s-1988, including:

  • demonstration of the prototype DNA sequencer;
  • history and development of the DNA sequencer;
  • commercial aspects of the DNA sequencer;
  • ethics of genetic engineering; future impact of DNA sequencer on medical science;
  • biographical information on Hood;
  • description of chemical component of the DNA sequencer;
  • demonstration of DNA preparation for sequencing; biographical information on Sanders.

Visual documentation included:

  • prototype DNA sequencer;
  • laboratory;
  • instrumentation.

Original Masters: 11 Beta videotapes
Dubbing Masters: 11 U-Matic videotapes
Reference Copies: 2 VHS videotapes
Transcript: 69 pages
3 hours, 40 minutes

Session Two (October 21, 1988), was recorded in the manufacturing and testing areas, and office areas of Applied Biosystems, Inc., Foster City, California. Becker, Connell, Hunkapiller, Shaffer, and Smith discussed the assembly of the ABI 370A DNA sequencer and its commercial applications, c. 1986-1989, including:

  • history and development of the ABI 370A;
  • collaboration California Institute of Technology;
  • comparison of prototype DNA sequencer and ABI 370A;
  • commercial implications of DNA sequencing;
  • tour of manufacturing area;
  • demonstration of ABI 370A sequencing DNA;
  • data analysis computer;
  • ABI's marketing strategy;
  • ABI's role in the international biotechnological industry.

Visual documentation included:

  • manufacturing plant;
  • computer images;
  • instrumentation.

Original Masters: 9 Beta videotapes, (3:00)
Dubbing Masters: 9 U-Matic videotapes, (3:00)
Reference Copies: 2 VHS videotapes, (3:00)
Transcript: 58 pages

Session Three (March 27, 1990), was recorded at The Receptor Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Section of the Laboratory of Molecular and Cellular Neurobiology, NINDS, NIH, Rockville, Maryland. Venter, Kerlavage, McCombie, and Gocayne discuss the role of the prototype DNA sequencer and the ABI 370A within their lab, c. 1986-1989, including:

  • tour and narration of the various areas of the lab;
  • demonstration of lab techniques;
  • biographical information on Venter;
  • demonstration of the Hewlett-Packard Vectra and Macintosh IIci computers;
  • discussion of instrumentation in medical research;
  • discussion of the Human Genome Project;
  • discussion of robotics.

Visual documentation included:

  • computers;
  • instrumentation.

Original Masters: 6 Beta videotapes
Dubbing Masters: 2 U-Matic videotapes
Reference Copies: 1 VHS videotape
Transcript: 49 pages
2 hours

Restrictions: Ramunas Kondratas must approve before broadcast or public viewing.


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