`Alpha Human' is mystery

Donor: The identity of the Adam of DNA research is a closely kept secret.

June 27, 2000|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN STAFF

ROCKVILLE - In the beginning, there was one man.

He is the Adam of the coming age of DNA, the first human to have his genetic library read from first volume to the last. And he's the basis for what is being called the "reference genome," the genetic yardstick against which the rest of us may one day be measured.

At the White House yesterday, rival groups said they had independently created the first complete human genetic standard - the human genome - which contains all the information needed to build and run a human body.

The more complete genome of the two was produced by Celera Genomics of Rockville. Celera says it used one man's DNA as the foundation for its work.

The donor's name hasn't been disclosed, but many inside and outside the company suspect that the DNA was that of J. Craig Venter, the brash president of Celera.

Venter coyly ducks the question. Dr. Samuel Broder, Celera's chief medical officer, is the only company official said to know the donor's identity, and he isn't talking. The information is stored in a fireproof safe at the biotech company.

"The Alpha Human of genetics is male, white, over 21 and generally healthy, one of six men who donated a syringe full of blood and a semen sample for the cause last year," the company says. "Each had, at least in theory, a one-in-six chance of becoming the primary donor."

Venter was one of those donors, according to company sources. So was Dr. Hamilton O. Smith, a Nobel Prize winner, Celera scientist and professor emeritus at the Johns Hopkins University. Smith isn't shy about confirming his donation but adds that he doesn't know whether his DNA was chosen. "I hope it was," he says.

James Shreeve, author of a forthcoming book on the human genome race, was also one of the first six donors, a knowledgeable source said. Shreeve would not comment.

Celera's first donor made the biggest contribution to the company's genome but is not the only person represented.

Celera recently mixed the data of that first donor with that of five other people from five ethnic backgrounds, at least two of them women, says Christine Carter, who supervises Celera's human testing. The additional donors, included to try to identify key genetic differences among people, include one white, one black, one ethnic Japanese, an ethnic Chinese and a Hispanic.

Celera also added publicly available data from its rival, the Human Genome Project, an international consortium of academic labs.

The consortium, which announced that it had completed a "rough draft" of the genome yesterday, also started with the DNA of one man, a resident of the Buffalo, N.Y., area who donated semen and blood to the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in 1997. Gradually, consortium scientists have blended in the DNA of nine other volunteers recruited by Roswell Park.

In all, the genome announced by Celera yesterday was formed from the DNA of 16 people.

Celera and the Human Genome Project started with a male because only males carry two different bundles of DNA, called chromosomes, that determine sex. Men carry an X and a Y chromosome, while women carry two X chromosomes. (All human embryos start out as females; the Y chromosome makes some minor alterations.)

Celera and the Human Genome Project decided to start with one person because it simplified reading the order, or sequence, of the 3.2 billion chemical units in a human genetic library.

That way, scientists wouldn't confuse differences between people as errors in the sequence. (Each of us carries almost all of the same 50,000 genes. Tiny differences in those genes, called polymorphisms, are what make us unique.)

Celera's Carter says friends have tried to wheedle the names of the company's roster of DNA donors out of her. She has resisted any temptation to tell.

"I have to keep my wits about me," she says. At dinner and parties, she says, she's careful not to have more than two drinks.

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