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San Francisco Sunday, 18 February, 2001, 04:05 GMT
Code crackers to settle differences
Graphic BBC
By Jonathan Amos in San Francisco

The private and public scientists who cracked the human genetic code are to hold a joint conference in April to settle their differences and plan a co-operative future.

The meeting in Washington DC, US, will help identify the next research goals and the most cost-effective means of achieving them.

The project to read the "book of life" has, on occasions, descended into recrimination and farce. Even the historic, first review of our DNA sequence had to be published in two separate journals because of arguments over access to data.

But Dr Craig Venter, CEO of Celera Genomics, the private company in the genome project, told the BBC that he hoped the planned workshop could put an end to the old hostilities.

"It is not in the public interest to have taxpayers spending billions of dollars competing with its own industry, or industry competing with its own government. It actually worked out quite well that there were two competing programmes because some of the discoveries were so surprising it was great to have instant validation. But it is probably not the best way to move forward."

The workshop will look at a range of issues including the supercomputing requirements needed to interpret the human genomic data and the prospects for sequencing the codes of other species.

Computer search

Dr Venter was speaking at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). He shared a platform with Dr Francis Collins, director of the US National Human Genome Research Institute and the main force behind the public effort to decode our DNA.

Both men have had a rollercoaster of a week touring TV studios to talk about the review that appeared in the journals Nature and Science.

The scientists said the revelation that humans had only about 30,000 genes - only twice as many as a fly - was truly remarkable. It underlined, they said, how complex was our biology and reminded us how difficult it would be to fully understand the DNA code's meaning.

"It could take us 100 years - we may never do it," Dr Venter said. But he was confident the spinoffs would come and that they would have a profound effect.

"It is easy for hope to turn into hype, but this is a new beginning where discoveries are going to happen at a catalytic pace that was not possible before. I spent 10 years trying to find one gene that can now be found with a 15-second computer search."

Internet empowerment

Dr Collins said we should not expect revolutionary cures for disease next week but that we should realise the foundations now laid would lead to an extraordinary future.

"We always, in a moment like this, tend to overestimate the immediate consequences of a revolution of this sort, but underestimate the long-term consequences," he said.

Both men were adamant that the benefits from genomic research should go to all, not just the rich North. Dr Venter said the fact that the raw DNA data was freely available on the internet would help further that effort. He said that the Celera website had been hit by surfers from 90 different countries since the sequence was posted on Monday.

"Because of the internet, this information is available and useable around the world. But the question of how to get all these discoveries to the next stage of diagnostics and treatments is a real challenge. In the US, a new drug can cost $500m to go through development. To make sure that the companies that spent that money can recoup their investment, it's very hard to do that outside of the first world.

"But the good news is that the basic information is available universally and I think we are both hopeful that the discoveries that will come from this will help lead to preventative medicine and not to costly treatments.

Dr Collins said: "This is our shared inheritance and its benefits should also be so. There is some reason to be hopeful that genomics will perhaps have benefits that are more exportable than some other types of medicine.

"I take heart in the fact that there are already genome projects underway for infectious diseases that have profound consequences in the underdeveloped world - I'm thinking particularly of malaria and tuberculosis."

And he added: "It's wonderful that these databases are accessible on the internet so that now anyone that wants to go and use them can do so. We've empowered the entire brains of the planet. "

Dr Craig Venter
"We're hoping to have much better public-private co-operation"
Dr Francis Collins
"We always tend to overestimate the immediate consequences of a revolution, but underestimate the long-term consequences"
See also:

22 Feb 00 | Washington 2000
26 Jan 99 | Anaheim 99
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