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Wednesday, 24 May, 2000, 08:17 GMT 09:17 UK
Date set for human DNA revelation
There are 24 distinct bundles of DNA in our cells
The race to decode the three billion DNA letters that encode the instructions for human life entered the final lap on Wednesday, with the publicly funded effort saying it would reveal a "working draft" of the code on 15 June.

The Human Genome Project has been in bitter competition with a private company, Celera Genomics, to be the first to publish the draft.

It's certainly the biggest thing to hit biology since Darwin - it's probably the most important science project ever

Professor Martin Bobrow, genetics expert
Celera has said that it has read all the letters in the code and is in the final stages of assembling them into the correct order - an announcement from the company could come at any day.

But Dr Ewan Birney, one of the lead researchers at the European Bio-informatics Institute in Cambridge, UK, told the BBC: "The public project decided last year to accelerate its rate of discovery to match the private project and on 15 June we will say that we're effectively 90% done - 90% of the interesting bits."

Medical hope

Unveiling the blueprint for humanity will be a monumental achievement - Nobel prizes are a certainty. Access to such fundamental information promises a new era of medicine and long-term hope for sufferers of a myriad of illnesses.

Genetic tests will highlight disease risk factors, allowing preventative action. Drugs will be individually tailored, drastically reducing side effects. And it may be possible to overwrite faulty genes using gene therapy, short-circuiting many diseases at source.

Base BBC
But the final stages of completing the first draft of the human genome have taken an ugly turn. Brilliant scientists have accused one another of immorality and ignorance.

On one side are publicly funded researchers, who aim to bequeath the raw human code to the world, free of charge. They are part of a 12-year, $3bn project, of which $500m will be spent on the human genome.

On the other are privately funded scientists who say only the rigours of the market and the investment of big business can hope to reap rapidly and efficiently the benefits of decoding human DNA.

One, Craig Venter, caused uproar in 1998 by saying he would decode the entire genome in just three years at a tenth of the cost of the public project.

Patent profit?

Adding to the acrimony is a raging argument over who should own the pieces of the human blueprint being churned out, every minute of every day. The people with your genes in their hands could amass fabulous wealth.

But some argue that the whole achievement is over-hyped and that crucial areas of human life are more influenced by the environment in which we live, rather than the genes we inherit.

Nonetheless, most agree that the first draft of the human genome - albeit an arbitrary and fuzzy finishing post - is simply the end of the beginning.

Sequencing the DNA in cells merely gives us the letters that describe human biology. From these, we have to pick out the words, or genes. And once that is done, we then have to learn the language, or what genes tell the body to do.

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See also:

27 Oct 99 | Sci/Tech
Human gene patents defended
03 Dec 99 | Sci/Tech
Book of life: Chapter one
10 Apr 00 | Sci/Tech
Caution urged over genome hype
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