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Monday, 17 April, 2000, 11:52 GMT 12:52 UK
Human genome: A private vs public battle
Venter BBC
Dr Venter's company only started sequencing last year
What should be celebrated as one of humankind's greatest achievements has descended into an almighty row. The quest to decipher all our DNA and map out the genes that give us life has led to some bitter arguments between private and publicly funded scientists.

The private sector is critical of the time and dollars taken by the other side to complete the job. The public sector has hit back by questioning the quality of its competitor's product and accusing it of being less than open about its data and intentions.

How has it come to this?

BBC science correspondent Pallab Ghosh has sought the views of both sides.

On this page, you can read the comments of Dr Craig Venter, President of Celera Genomics. He says his company has read all the letters that make up the human genetic code of one person and will have put the information in the right order within a few weeks. It will essentially be a "working draft" of the "code of life" - much work will still need to be done to produce a thoroughly detailed genome.

Sulston BBC
Dr Sulston's Sanger Centre will provide about a third of the public data
Read his remarks below. You can also read those of Dr John Sulston, Director of the publicly funded Sanger Centre, UK, by
clicking here.

Tell us what you think. What do you make of what these two important scientists have to say? Why do you think this great project has descended into a big row? Has the public sector been too slow? Should the private sector be more open with its data? Does it matter who actually gets to the finishing line first?

Send us your comments. Click here for the e-mail form.

Pallab Ghosh - Where are you in the race to decode the human genetic make up and what are your feelings on being on the verge of a historic moment?

Dr Craig Venter - It's an exciting time for everyone in the scientific community, trying to come up with new treatments for complex diseases affecting all of us. People realise they're making history and that's why we are trying to do such a good job.

PG - You say you'll have the bits assembled but what is the finishing line, what needs to be done and when do you think you'll get there?

CV -The goals become diffuse in terms of who is defining them. Getting the sequence is obviously an important step, and that would be the end of the sequencing and the assembly stage, and at that stage we will have the sequence of chromosomes.

PG - In three to six weeks?

CV - That's right. But that sequence is roughly 3.2 billion letters: As, Cs, Gs and Ts, and that's virtually worthless. The only way that it becomes valuable scientifically is to try to decode that information - to interpret where the genes are, which are only 3% of those letters.

Cell BBC
So we're trying to sort out the language of the human genetic code and we're still just at the learning stage of how to do this. And probably decades from now, we will still be learning how to do this key step. With the Drosophila genome, we defined 13,601 genes in the genome and 2,500 of them were known from the previous 100 years research. A key part for us is doing the first definition of how many human genes there are. If that cannot be done with some level of precision, the genome cannot be claimed to be complete.

There's been a lot of confusion with statements from people in the public effort claiming their rough draft sequence is going to be 99% accurate. The sequence can be accurate but they don't have it in the proper order. So saying that it's accurate is very misleading to the world. It's important that the sequence is assembled because we can't define the genes until it's assembled in the proper order as well as being highly accurate.

PG - You're aware of some criticisms that have come from people in the public sector saying that your rough draft is very rough and their sequence is more accurate. What's your response to these criticisms?

CV -We find them extremely disappointing. These are coming from scientists that I have a lot of respect for. They're doing good quality work for the most part but they also have a very strong vested interest in terms of tens of millions of dollars - billions of dollars - going to their labs over years. They are trying to fool the public about what they are doing. Our sequences have set the standard for the world in terms of quality and they're of a much higher quality than has been published by most other groups.

PG - Why do you think they need to devalue your work in this way?

CV - I don't know why they do it. I can only guess it's because they're dependent on public charities and tax payer money to continue what they are doing and these are kinds of monies that have never gone into science before. The budget and the number of employees at the Sanger Centre in Cambridge, UK, [one of the main sequencing centres for the public effort] far exceeds the budget of Celera Genomics, a public traded company.

So there are strong economic interests and people want to get credit. The public effort promised over a 15-year period there would be a finished genome sequence. Celera made it non-tolerable to wait that long. We started out to get the genome in a couple of year's time. We'll end up sequencing the genome in less than one year. We didn't do that to try to damage the Sanger Centre. We did it because we were extremely disturbed to hear that this important project was getting bogged down in minor scientific squabbles about who would get credit for doing it. The most important thing is that we get it done quickly, so that we can move science forward to try to find cures for cancer and other diseases affecting all of us.

PG - Some people say you talk up your landmarks so that share prices go up. Do you do this because you need a lot of money to invest?

CV - In fact, that's not true in our case. Shareholders that have invested in Celera, some have lost value because of irresponsible statements made by others. Celera is not trying to raise money through the stock market. We did that one time and raised $1bn. We have that in the bank and are using it to fund all our post-genomic efforts. The stock value right now has no direct effect on anything Celera does, but it does have a direct effect on people I care about who invested their money because they believe that we're trying to change the future of medicine. It does bother me to see those people affected economically because of other people making irresponsible statements.

PG - You've become known in Europe as the Bill Gates of biology - how do you feel about that?

CV - I don't think it's appropriate at all. I represent moving things forward into the new economy. Genomics is a big part of the economy going forward. I hope we can change how medicine is practised and having a role in that is exciting. Fame and these kind of things are something everyone assumes you have but I've been too busy working to take much notice of it other than I have to do a lot more interviews.

PG - You may be regarded as the person who got there first. Do you feel history looking over your shoulder - a bit like Crick and Watson?

CV - I think our entire team feels they are part of making history and the point is that this is very much a team effort. There were 240 authors on the Drosophila paper, all of them making major contributions. I'm the figurehead of Celera and we have some of the best scientists and computer programmers in the world. This is such a historic time and it's based on the contributions that everyone is making in this field, and everybody should feel very proud.

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So what do you think? Why do you think this great project has descended into a big row? Has the public sector been too slow? Should the private sector be more open with its data? Does it matter who actually gets to the finishing line first?

Remember, also read what Dr John Sulston, Director of the UK Sanger Centre, has to say on this private versus public battle by clicking here.

Send us your comments:

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Disclaimer: The BBC will put up as many of your comments as possible but we cannot guarantee that all e-mails will be published. The BBC reserves the right to edit comments that are published.

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See also:

14 Apr 00 | Sci/Tech
Human chromosome code obtained
06 Apr 00 | Sci/Tech
Celera closes on genome goal
30 Mar 00 | Sci/Tech
June target for human genome
23 Mar 00 | Sci/Tech
Small fly makes history
10 Dec 98 | Sci/Tech
Small worm makes history
05 Jul 99 | Sci/Tech
Similarity in diversity
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