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The BBC's Pallab Ghosh
"The most important scientific endeavour ever undertaken"
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banner Saturday, 3 June, 2000, 07:45 GMT 08:45 UK
Genome puzzle near to solution

The genome will promote a deeper understanding of human life
A team of scientists racing to become the first to work out the detailed composition of human DNA says it is close to achieving its goal.

The team - from the American company Celera Genomics - says it is on course to beat a rival, publicly funded effort.

Its leader, Doctor Craig Venter, told Radio 4's Today programme he believed his researchers would finish their work to map the human genome this month.

Venter: Leading the race
The task, which involves decoding the entire three billion letters of human DNA, will be hailed as a monumental scientific achievement.

The first scientists to sequence the human genome, described as the "blueprint of humanity", will earn themselves a place in the history books.

The wealth of information gleaned from the landmark discovery will enable the creation of new medicines and a deeper knowledge of how human life evolves.

If Dr Venter is to scoop first place in the scientific race he needs to complete his research in the next few days.

A rival publicly-funded bid to unravel the human genome say they are on course to complete the project by mid-June.

The publicly-funded Human Genome Project scientists form part of a 12-year, $3bn programme, of which $500m is being spent on the human genome.

Dr Venter first caused uproar in 1998 by saying he would decode the entire genome in just three years at a 10th of the cost of the public project.

He could be on course to fulfill this promise, as he says he will make an announcement in the next few days.

The publicly-funded group will make its findings freely available on the Internet, whereas Celera Genomics plans to sell the information.

Dr Venter dismissed suggestions that selling the sequenced code was immoral and pointed out that medicines such as insulin and cancer treatments were already based on genetic research.

He said of the critics: "I hope these people don't have anybody in their family who is using insulin to treat diabetes, that they are not using key drugs to helping cancer chemotherapy patients.

"I think it is fantastic that the pharmaceutical industry and the biotech industry are coming up with new treatments.

"If you want to live in the dark ages where there is no treatment for diseases then we should eliminate all these processes."

Dramatic discovery

Piecing together all parts of the human genome jigsaw was an unthinkable task 15 years ago, making its imminent discovery all the more dramatic.

The 2m long string of DNA found in nearly every human cell contains the instructions for every physical aspect of the human body, from the pattern of fine capillaries in the lungs to the unique speckled pattern of the iris.

Access to such fundamental information promises a new era of medicine and long-term hope for sufferers of a myriad of illnesses.

In the far future, it may be possible to prevent genetic diseases from being inherited by cutting them out of the gene pool altogether, in what is called germline engineering.

At the nearer end of the time scale, genetic tests are allowing people to choose suitable therapies and lifestyles to beat disease.

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