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Monday, 12 February, 2001, 12:31 GMT
Cracking the code
A personal commentary on the race to crack the human code, by BBC Science correspondent Pallab Ghosh

The publication of the human genome sequence was to have been a celebration of arguably humankind's greatest endeavour.

Instead it has turned out to be a slanging match between the public sector research effort and the rival private sector bid by Craig Venter's Celera Genomics.

DNA sequencing
Two different methods were used to crack the code
It is more than just another internal wrangle because what is at issue is not just who should get the credit, but the way in which scientific research should be carried out in the future.

The public sector scientists have spent the past few days briefing science correspondents against Celera's paper. They say that his method for generating the sequence of the human genome "has failed".

They claim that Dr Venter could not have put his sequence together without the public sector's data - and even by combining his data with theirs, they say, it is no better - and in some respects - worse, a claim that Venter vehemently denies.

And they have also renewed their condemnation of Dr Venter's decision not to deposit his data in the public computer archive, Genbank.

Instead Celera will grant full access to its own database - but has set restrictions on distribution of the data. Public sector researchers say this would hinder the free flow of information and slow progress to developing cures for diseases.

Faster and cheaper

So why all the bad blood? To my mind the public sector researchers have not forgiven Dr Venter for rattling their cage in 1998 when he claimed he could sequence the human genome faster and cheaper than the public sector effort. He even went on to suggest to Congress that it was wasting taxpayer's money by funding the public effort.

If that was a wind-up it worked. Fearful that their grand project would be hijacked by a barrow boy, the public effort splashed out on the same super-fast sequencing machines that Celera were using.

This precipitated the most expensive equipment arms race in the history of biology - of which the only real winner was the sequence machine manufacturer, Perkin Elmer.

Now the dust has settled and the data is now available for examination, the public sector scientists have been able to confirm what they suspected all along: Craig Venter could not have put together his sequence without their work - and that the public effort was needed after all.

Craig Venter
Dr Craig Venter of Celera Genomics
What is at the heart of this bitter long-running feud is a fundamental philosophical difference between the two camps. Craig Venter's suspicion of government is well documented, stemming from his experiences as an army doctor in the Vietnam MASH camps.

No doubt frustrated in the nineties by the gargantuan bureaucracy of the US National Institutes of Health he decided to go it alone - creating a "Third Way" for research. His approach was to bring the energies and flexibility of the private sector to do pure science.

Public vs private

What was at stake for the public sector was not only the prize of completing the human genome first - but their very existence. If Craig Venter could do the genome on private capital - then why not put him in charge of the NIH? And why stop there - Nasa's in pretty bad shape in government hands at the moment.

So that is what the PR blitz against Craig Venter is really all about: the establishment doing what it does best - maintaining control.

To his credit, Dr Venter has tried to rise above what he sees as internal petty squabbles - continually praising the efforts of his public sector counterparts, while they in return stick the boot in.

Since the days of Edison and Ford there has been a fine tradition in the US of private sector research leading to improvements in the quality of our lives.

Dr Venter has done little different to these early pioneers. His only "crime" was wanting the scientific credit for his achievements as well as the commercial gain.

But to many bench scientists in the public sector there is a genuine admiration for the quality of Craig Venter's work and the fact that he had the courage to give their bosses - the sleepy scientific establishment - a much needed wake up call.


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