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Sunday, 14 April, 2002, 17:24 GMT 18:24 UK
Complete genome map 'in 2003'
Graphic BBC

The sequencing of the human genome will be finished by next year, according to the new president of the Human Genome Organisation (Hugo).

It has been almost two years since scientists announced they had completed a rough draft of the three billion "letters" that make up the biochemical instructions for life.

Now, scientists from the publicly funded effort say they have carefully and precisely read about 70% of our DNA and should have more than 90% of it in this "gold standard" format within 12 months.

Speaking before the opening of the Seventh International Human Genome Meeting in Shanghai, Professor Yoshiyuki Sakaki said the detailed information would allow researchers to more easily target the causes of disease.

Fewer genes

The human genome has about 3.2 billion bases - the chemical components that hold the double-stranded DNA molecule together. It is these bases, or letters, that spell out the genes - the instructions cells use to build and maintain the body.

The DNA is coiled up very tightly into chromosomes - 46 in all. But not all the bases appear to be part of our genes - most are thought to have no function at all and are called junk DNA.

It is estimated that humans have only about 30,000 genes, which is very few compared with other organisms. Rice, for example, probably has twice as many genes.

However, because humans have fewer genes, it should make it easier for scientists to complete the human genomic map.

Help the sick

Professor Sakaki said he was confident we would have a detailed "book of life" some time next year.

"I think more than 90% of the genes will be identified and precisely mapped on the genome. And that is a very strong basis for understanding ourselves, our life."

However, he added that this blueprint was only the beginning of the real work to find out how genetic diseases occurred and what science could do to help the sick.

Scientists think our relatively small number of genes interact with each other in sophisticated ways, and understanding this will be key to understanding many conditions.

New treatments in 10 years' time

Undoubtedly, some illnesses have a single gene or chromosomal mutation (error) - for instance, Down's syndrome occurs when there is an extra copy of chromosome 21. But it is illnesses like diabetes, cancer and hypertension that are much more complex.

Rice, USDA
Rice may have twice the number of genes
They are caused by many different mutations in the DNA and are also influenced by the environment in which we live.

Despite these complications, Professor Sakaki said he was confident that in five years' time scientists would have a fairly good idea of which genes were involved with these conditions and that they would be able to identify people who might be at greatest risk of developing these illnesses.

With improving methods and techniques, Professor Sakaki said that we would see changes in medical treatments and practices within 10 years.

"It will take 10 years before we can enjoy the fruits of our genomic research."

The Seventh International Human Genome Meeting, organised by the Human Genome Organisation, runs until Wednesday, 17 April.

Hugo is a forum through which the world's scientists can collaborate as they work to unravel our genetic code, and allows them to discuss some of the social, legal and commercial issues that spin off that research.

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See also:

04 Apr 02 | Science/Nature
07 Jul 01 | Science/Nature
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