Winged victory?

NOTES AND COMMENTS

May 04, 2000|By Mike Burns

YOU COULD CALL it "Son of the Fly," a real-life version of the classic Vincent Price sci-fi movie. But it may be more of a "War of the Words" between scientific competitors in the race to complete the human genetic code.

Celera Genomics, the Maryland biotechnology firm that decoded the genetic map of the fruit fly, mistakenly included pieces of human genetic material in initial data posted on its Web site.

The "human contamination" of the published fruit fly genome, containing some 180 million chemical building blocks, is not fatal to the blueprint. The foreign material, amounting to just one-tenth of 1 percent of the total fly genome, was detected by staff of the National Center for Biotechnology Information. Rockville-based Celera says it intends to update the code as further research fills admitted gaps.

Mapping the fruit fly genome is an important test run of Celera's super-computer method of deciphering the human genome of 3 billion chemical-letter building blocks -- and using that genetic data to develop medical breakthroughs. Celera hopes to reach that goal this month.

The race between the private company and publicly funded researchers to complete the human genome, and claim the patent rights, has turned to bitter words. Celera recently criticized public-effort shortcuts. The human-fly genetic map confusion invited ripostes from the other side.

Important for humankind is that the genome achievement is not science fiction, but a short step from reality.

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