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This transcript has been typed at speed, and therefore may contain mistakes. Newsnight accepts no responsibility for these. However, we will be happy to correct serious errors.

Who owns the map of the human body? 12/2/01

Wherever we look, our world has been conquered. We've trodden its contours, mapped its every detail and understand what it holds. Today, a new exploration has begun - the exploration of ourselves. Scientists have had a rough map of our genes since last summer, but only now are they beginning to make sense of this new terrain. It's turning out to be an exhilarating journey.

President, California Institute of Technology
Shivers ran down my spine because I realised that we were seeing human beings opened to investigation with a depth we'd never seen before.

International Human Genome Project
This is an iconic moment when we say we've got to this point - it's only the beginning not the end, in fact it's only halfway through the beginning.

There will have been a lot of strain on printers around the world today as researchers got their first sight of the scientific papers describing the human genetic sequence. Papers like this are the essence of science but today's are different - two sets of papers extraordinary for their size and for what they describe. I found just printing them out a problem, let alone trying to make sense of it all. One set is the official version of the human DNA code. The other is a rival version from a commercial company. The alpha males of each team are sworn enemies. Their two philosophies couldn't be more different. It was supposed to be the best kept secret in science but this weekend that broke down. Not only did news of today's findings leak out, but what should have been a celebration of a great moment in scientific history descended into bitter acrimony. At press briefings today, the row erupted. In London, the man at the helm of the publicly funded team said the genome should belong to no one individual or company, and that the commercial team's version draws heavily on the public work. He thanked the charities and governments that had paid for the project.

Without that, not only would we have a privatised genome, but we would not have a genome at all.

Craig Venter, the man at the head of the commercial project, says he's charging scientists because he's added value to the data. Ignoring the row, he tried to focus on the science and made profound connections between the sequence and the nature of humanity.

Our understanding of the human genome has changed in fundamental ways. The small number of genes - just 30,000 genes instead of 140,000 supports the notion that we're not hard-wired, We now know the notion that one gene leads to one protein and perhaps one disease is false.

Even the tale of the way these papers have been published is a bloody one. The public team has its findings in this week's issue of Nature magazine. The commercial project is published in the rival US journal - Science magazine. UK scientists accuse the American publisher of bowing to the restrictive terms of a commercial outfit but the magazine says it's just being pragmatic.

It's depressed me all along that there's not a completely altruistic view to the way the genome's being handled It's not a matter of sniping - it's not a game. This is about important issues - the release and use of our genome. It's not something you can switch off overnight - if people want to put restrictions on that then I'm afraid I have to say I don't agree. If you call that sniping, fine, but I don't. I think it's just telling the truth as I see it.

This very public row has threatened to overshadow the actual science in today's papers and there are some real surprises even for hard-bitten scientists for whom human genes are familiar territory. Each of us is made up of trillions of cells. Inside each cell are 23 pairs of chromosomes. The chromosomes are numbered - 1 to 22 - then the last pair determines your sex. Our genes are strung along the double helix of DNA contained within these 23 pairs of chromosomes. Each gene is made up of chemicals of which there are four types - A,C,T and G - the letters of the DNA code. It takes 3 billion of these letters to code for a human being. Scientists at the Sanger Centre near Cambridge decoded about a third of the genome. They deciphered the first human chromosome here just over a year ago. Although they suspected we have fewer genes than originally thought, they were still surprised to learn we have only twice as many as a fly. The obvious question then is how come we're so much more complex. A fly can fly, but generally they can't talk, or think a great deal. If it's not down to the number of genes, what is it that makes us different? The man who's led the UK effort for the past decade thinks the key is in the way we "manage" our genes.

With all animals with lots of cells, including flies and worms, you need managers to organise how one cell is different from another. They are the executive structure. In flies and worms, you have a certain executive structure. In going from them to humans, what you build more than anything else is the executive structures. You get many more layers of management - people reporting to each other - in genetic terms. We know that because we can look in there and see that the extra genes in humans compared to flies and worms belong more in the management class than in any other class. What we don't know is how those managers fit together. That's what we'll find out now.

Finding out we have only twice as many genes as a fruit fly might be a good lesson in humility, but does it tell us anything useful? Well, for scientists it confirms long-held suspicions that what really makes us individuals is decided not in our genes in themselves but in the way our bodies interpret these genes and that's the next 50 years of biology. The other perhaps humbling discovery about our DNA is that about 10% of our genes are very similar to those of bacteria. In fact, our code is a sort of evolutionary history book. Some of the oldest sections date back 100 million years. For the Nobel prize winner David Baltimore, the most intriguing finding is the suggestion that we actually recruited these genes into our code to do something useful.

It's remarkable that some of our genome seems to have jumped from bacteria into vertebrates without going through the evolutionary trail of most of the rest of the DNA. That indicates that periodically in the lives of people, DNA actually jumps from bacteria into us.

This again reminds us of the unity of life - the fact that genes are not purpose-made for each organism, but rather evolution keeps on re-using its inventions over time. And it was known that this occasionally happened, but suddenly the scale is much greater - there's hundreds of genes that have come that way. Some people might find that scary, that we're exchanging DNA with bacteria all the time. We have to get used to this idea. Nature is not very prophylactic in what it does.

But the genome is much more than a window on our past - it's about finding genetic clues to real diseases and designing drugs for real people. Perhaps even personalising medicine - moving away from the one-drug-suits-all approach. Eventually, for some scientists, it's about making a decent profit too. Some of this profit will come from scientists search for genetic differences between people. Single letter changes - "snips" - in the 3 billion-letter code. These changes provide clues about how susceptible we each might be to disease.

Head of Human Genetics, The Sanger Centre
A snip is a single alteration in one letter of the alphabet between two individual copies of the human genome. The recent discovery has been mapping out of some two million of these snips across the genome, scattered throughout all our genes. The tremendous opportunity this provides is to begin to look at how these variations between individuals are responsible for disease, how we react to our environment, drugs and so on.

It's not just the drug companies but each and every one of us who will find our lives affected in some way be the project.

It's going to affect everyone in the world because the way we do medicine, the ways we think about intelligence, the ways we structure our educational systems - all those things are going to be affected by our understanding of the human genome.

Just as we've moved on from learning we were not at the centre of the Universe so we'll also cope with knowing we have only a few more genes than the simpler creatures. And the very fact that we've begun to make sense of our own genetic code goes to show it's not the number of genes that counts, but how you use them.

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