After months of fitful negotiation that seemed to flame out in a final angry exchange in February, the two sides racing to decode the human DNA have contrived a last-minute truce. The first element of the resurrected pact is likely to be a joint announcement next week of the effective completion of the genome.
Although it is too late for a pooling of DNA sequencing efforts, the truce will include agreement for the competitors to publish their genome findings in the same issue of a journal. It may also provide for a joint annotation of the genome, the critical process of identifying the location and role of the genes on the genome.
Should the two sides cooperate in such an interpretation of their data, a step that has at least been under discussion, the truce could develop into a broader pact.
The truce also implies a cessation of public criticism between the two parties, the Celera Corp. of Rockville, Md., and an international consortium of academic centers supported largely by the National Institutes of Health and the Wellcome Trust, a London philanthropy.
Although the institutes and the trust decline to discuss the deal, the trust has said it will hold a news conference on the human genome next Monday, and sources close to Celera say a joint news conference will be held at the White House at which the two sides will announce the progress of their respective efforts on sequencing the genome.
Sequencing means determining the order of the 3 billion chemical units in the DNA of the human chromosomes. The genome sequence is expected in time to revolutionize knowledge of the human body and the practice of medicine.
The rival teams appear to have been driven together by a calculus that cooperation outweighed the attractions of laying claim to one of science's greatest prizes independently, especially now that each has achieved successes that vindicate its own approach.
Celera has established the validity of its high-risk genome sequencing strategy, which the consortium's two senior scientists had predicted would be "woefully inadequate." The consortium has generated a draft genome sequence that can be searched for human genes, a principal objective of the human genome project.
Celera was set to declare victory in achieving an effectively complete genome assembly many months before the consortium could do so. But Celera's business plan is to sell genome data and genomic analysis tools to the community of university scientists from which the consortium is drawn. Claiming victory might have alienated potential customers.
The consortium could have attacked Celera's genome as not being the real thing while going on to declare its own independent victory, though perhaps as late as 2003. The alternative, which it seems now to have embraced, was to accept Celera's proposal of declaring joint victory on Celera's timetable. "Celera doesn't want the NIH to lose," said Dr. Norton Zinder, a member of Celera's scientific board.
Zinder and Dr. Richard Roberts, the research director of New England BioLabs and chairman of Celera's scientific board, have for many months pushed for the two sides to collaborate and, when that idea foundered, at least to cooperate by coordinating publication.
Both said that they did not wish the institutes, the federal patron of most biomedical research, to seem to have suffered defeat at Celera's hands, and that the human genome was too precious a scientific achievement to be marred by priority disputes.
"The discovery and presentation of the human genome, one of the most important attributes of man, should be a time of great joy and happiness," Zinder said. "For there to be all this vitriol and hatred just doesn't seem right."
Roberts, a Nobel laureate, said that the announcement of sequencing the human genome "should be a great celebration of humankind, not a race with a clear winner or loser."