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Monday, 17 April, 2000, 11:52 GMT 12:52 UK
Human genome: A private vs public battle
Sulston BBC
Dr John Sulston: Open access is the key
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 John Sulston, Director of the publicly funded Sanger Centre, UK. The international group of researchers with which he works is reading out all the letters that make up the human genetic code. They started in the late 80s.

It will probably publish a "working draft" of the "code of life" in June. A more refined version, marking out precisely all the genes in the code, will come later.


Venter BBC
Dr Venter's private company plans to sell analysis of the human genome
Read his remarks below. Also read those of Dr Craig Venter, President of Celera Genomics, 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 an e-mail form


Pallab Ghosh - Dr John Sulston, you are familiar with Dr Venter's claims and those of his company Celera. How do you respond to them?

Dr John Sulston - These claims that somehow Celera is ahead of the public effort and is benefiting mankind more is absolutely untrue. We have already covered three quarters of the human genome in rough draft form and released it as we went along. The world is full of researchers using that data. They can't use Celera's data because it's not yet been released. So this claim to speed completely foxes me.

I hate to trade comments in this way but I have to say that we are ahead of them - not the reverse.

PG - Why do you think Dr Venter is making these comments?

JS - Well, he's in business and all businesses make their product known through advertising - and this is what a lot of these statements are all about. Obviously in the long run, Celera has to run its business. It's got to sell its product and it must convince people that its product is best. So that's what I think is the motive behind some of these statements.

PG - Can we take some of the detailed assertions by Dr Venter one by one. First, the comment that when you say that by the time you've produced your rough draft you won't have put all the pieces together. So your claim that you're ahead of him is misleading

JS - What he's talking about is a product called the rough draft. This is what we're producing at the moment.


Cell BBC
We will generate rapidly, by a couple of months now, complete coverage of the genome to a limited quality. It will have a lot of gaps in. It's not true to say that it's completely disordered because we are working from mapped clones. And therefore we know where every piece lies to about a 100 kilobases - which is a very precise picture. It's a framework. The framework is very secure but the details are not there yet.

We shall then very probably produce a public progress report - in the form of a paper, which will be a series of review documents. But it will not be the end. Rather it will be a review document on the way to producing the final finished product.

We shall also have another intermediate stage of quite deep coverage of the genome later this year, and that will increase the quality for our users.

Throughout this process every morsel of data is there for people to pick out.

The reason why this is so important is precisely because we are at the beginning and not the end. Everybody has to got to understand this fundamental information. In order to do that, we must have the information out there and freely and fully redistributable, so that those ingenious people who work on understanding the sequence will be able to do so free and will be able to this on all the sequence and will be able to pass on their conclusions to other researchers.

PG - You've been accused of criticising private sector attempts to justify the large amounts of public money you receive. What's your response to that?

JS - It's simply not true at all. All I care about is achieving the goals I outlined. I don't regard this as something I'm doing for credit or money or power. In fact, if Craig were to combine freely his information with ours, it would be a better way. But if there were any restriction on redistribution of that data then it wouldn't be a better way at all.

PG - Is there any way forward for public-private co-operation?

JS - We have tried. Representatives of the public sector effort met with representatives of Celera at the end of last year and came up against quite a high brick wall with comments of data having to be locked away for at least five years.

Since then we've heard that Celera has changed its position and that it would like to co-operate. I hope I've made this quite clear. It really is a very important point. I don't think it's an exaggeration that the future of biology depends on this matter of the public domain producing this data completely freely.

Celera has tried to get round this by making it clear that individual researchers will be able to make free use of smallish amounts of their data. Their release notes on their web page talk about not copying large amounts of this information. But that's exactly what theoreticians need to do. They must be able to pick up all the data, look at it and pass it on. And we just seem to be up against this block and can't combine. We think it's so important and Craig doesn't.

PG - But his argument is that private industry needs to make some money for its effort. His company has provided resources and energy that's accelerated the human genome project, and that private sector involvement will bring benefits.

JS - Well, its about monopoly isn't it. The energy of free enterprise, and he's absolutely right, is substantial and important. But the difficulty is, by its nature, free enterprise has to be competitive and monopolistic. Because there's only one human genome, by tying it up you inevitably establish a monopolistic position and that will be to the detriment of biology.

PG - What would you say to Craig Venter about how to go forward?

JS - It seems that we have to agree to differ at this moment in history. That's sad, but so be it. I think at critical moments of history, people very often do differ precisely because they understand how important that moment is. They have to make their positions clear. Craig, just do your thing to the best of your ability and everything will work out fine. I'll do the same.

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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 Craig Venter, President of Celera Genomics, has to say on this private versus public battle by clicking here.


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See also:

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Human chromosome code obtained
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Celera closes on genome goal
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June target for human genome
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Small fly makes history
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Small worm makes history
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