Human DNA is deciphered

Feat holds promise of defeating disease, raises privacy issues

Clinton praises scientists

Decade of work by private company, international team

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

WASHINGTON - Scientists said yesterday that they had produced the first full-length record of human DNA, a feat that ranks among the most important in the history of biology and a milestone expected to set the agenda for medical research for the next century.

President Clinton hailed the achievement in the East Room of the White House, flanked by the leaders of two groups that were once locked in a bitter contest for scientific credit.

In the end, the competitors declared a joint victory at a celebration muted by the recognition that the accomplishment, for good or ill, will give humans powerful new tools to control their fate.

"Today we are learning the language in which God created life," Clinton said. "We are gaining ever more awe for the complexity, the beauty, the wonder of God's most divine and sacred gift."

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, linked by satellite to the White House, called it a "momentous day" and termed the reading, or sequencing, of all 3.2 billion chemical units in human DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) "the first great technological triumph of the 21st century."

The complete collection of DNA that each of us carries, called the genome, is the encrypted recipe that guides an embryo's growth into a living, breathing and thinking human being. It controls the day-to-day functions of the body's 60 trillion cells.

The study of the genome will revolutionize the detection, treatment and prevention of diseases ranging from cancer and heart disease to Alzheimer's and schizophrenia.

It could also erode privacy, create new forms of discrimination and lead to a murky future of genetically engineered life.

"We must not shrink from exploring that far frontier of science," Clinton said. "But as we consider how to use [this] new discovery, we must also not retreat from our oldest and most cherished human values."

Two groups - a Maryland biotech company and an international consortium led in the United States by the National Institutes of Health - raced for two years to be the first to complete the work.

For a while, the contest became, as one said yesterday, a name-calling "cat fight."

Leaders of the rival teams agreed to share credit during secret meetings that began May 7 over beer and jalapeno pizza in the basement recreation room of a U.S. Department of Energy official.

Yesterday, the two principals praised each other at the White House and at a news conference later at the Capital Hilton.

Both are negotiating with the journal Science for the joint publication of separate papers, perhaps in the first September issue.

Rising above squabbles

"We felt it was important for us to rise above the squabbles," said J. Craig Venter, head of Celera Genomics of Rockville, Md., a former surfer and Vietnam medical corpsman who has been accused of trying to monopolize the genome.

"The only race we're talking about here today is the human race, and we want them to be the winners," said Dr. Francis Collins, chief of the National Human Genome Research Institute.

Collins, who helped discover the gene for cystic fibrosis, leads the fractious army of American academics working on the multinational effort called the Human Genome Project.

Project scientists felt blindsided two years ago when Venter announced he planned to sequence the genome by the end of 2001. The academics didn't expect to publish a complete genome until 2005 and were far behind schedule. After Venter's challenge, they stopped strolling and started sprinting.

Victory all around

Both sides claimed a victory of sorts yesterday. Collins said his project has produced a "rough draft" of the genome that is 85 percent complete, with a finished draft expected in 2003. Venter said his team had sequenced 99 percent of the human genome.

Yesterday's joint announcement was made possible by the agreement reached in the Montgomery County basement of Ari Patrinos, leader of the Department of Energy's slice of the genome program.

Both sides said they would not criticize each other's work, and Venter promised Collins to make most of Celera's genome available to scientists free of charge.

Today, the consortium's draft genome is available to anyone with an Internet connection, at a Web site called GenBank.

For now Celera's abridged edition of the Book of Life can be seen only by the company's subscribers, mostly pharmaceutical companies. It won't be more widely available, Venter said, until after publication this fall.

Celera plans to gather and sell information about the genomes of animals in addition to Homo sapiens: the fruit fly, mouse, chimpanzee, rat, dog and others.

Comparing one genome with another will, in many cases, pinpoint important mutations, or "polymorphisms," that predispose organisms to disease or determine how effective a given drug will be against a particular disease.

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