SPIEGEL: So the Human Genome Project has had very little medical benefits so far?
Venter: Close to zero to put it precisely.
SPIEGEL: Did it at least provide us with some new knowledge?
Venter: It certainly has. Eleven years ago, we didn't even know how many genes humans have. Many estimated that number at 100,000, and some went as high as 300,000. We made a lot of enemies when we claimed that there appeared to be considerably fewer -- probably closer to the neighborhood of 40,000! And then we found out that there are only half as many. I was just in Stockholm for the 200th anniversary of the Karolinska Institute. The first presentation was about the many achievements the decoding of the genome has brought. Then I spoke and said that this century will be remembered for how little, and not how much, happened in this field.
SPIEGEL: Why is it taking so long for the results of genome research to be applied in medicine?
Venter: Because we have, in truth, learned nothing from the genome other than probabilities. How does a 1 or 3 percent increased risk for something translate into the clinic? It is useless information.
Update: Larry Moran left a comment pointing out that most informed scientists expected the human genome to contain 30,000 or fewer genes, and points to this post on his site: Facts and Myths Concerning the Historical Estimates of the Number of Genes in the Human Genome. I also like this passage about the perceptions of our own complexity:
The second point will have to be put off for another time but it’s important enough to mention here. Ast thinks that humans need to make many times more proteins than worms and corn because we are so much more complex. There are two problems with such a point of view—are we, in fact, 2-3 times more complex than corn? And, does it take thousands of new proteins to generate the structures that make us unique?
I think some people exaggerate our complexity and the place of humans relative to other species. This incorrect perspective can cause some scientists to put their faith in weakly supported hypotheses that claim to explain why humans really are complex and important in spite of the fact that we don’t have a lot of genes.