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The BBC's David Concar
"For the first time the complete genome recipe for human life will be in human hands"
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Saturday, 24 June, 2000, 09:41 GMT 10:41 UK
Science to celebrate landmark
Chromosomes Wellcome Photo Library
DNA in cells is wound on to chromosomes
A landmark in the history of science will be reached on Monday with an announcement from researchers that they have completed a rough draft of the human genome.

Publicly funded scientists across the world have worked for over a decade to decipher the biochemical instructions required to build and maintain the human body.

To do this, they have had to determine the "sequence", or exact order, of the three billion individual chemical building blocks that make up DNA, the long, double-stranded molecule which is hidden in the nuclei of nearly all cells.

On Monday, the scientists will say that most of the sequence in the genome is now in their databases and in the right order.

It is possible the scientists' efforts will be marked in special ceremonies attended by world leaders, including US President Bill Clinton and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Biology's moonshot

The rough draft is an astonishing achievement that commentators say stands comparison with any of the great events of the past 100 years, such as the Moon landing and the invention of the computer.

Even though the DNA code will require decades of further study to work out precisely what it all means, scientists are already sure the information will revolutionise medicine.

It will allow doctors to diagnose diseases much earlier than they can at present, and help pharmaceutical companies to design a new generation of more effective drugs that are targeted at an individual's particular health problems.

The rough draft has been completed several years ahead of schedule thanks to the introduction of new robotic technology and competition from an American firm using a different method to sequence the DNA.

Celera Genomics announced back in April that it had finished reading the genetic code of one person and was putting the information together into a meaningful order.

It is expected that the company will announce on Monday that it too has reached the rough draft stage. Whether it will do this alongside the publicly funded researchers is not clear. The company has steadfastly refused to make any comment on the subject over the past seven days.

Issues of ownership

But the noises coming out of both camps suggest the differences of opinion that have dogged their relationship in recent months, particularly on the issues related to patents, may no longer be so great.

At a recent cancer conference, Celera chief executive Dr Craig Venter and Dr Francis Collins, the man who heads up the publicly funded project in the US, paid tribute to each other's efforts.

This gave rise to speculation that a deal had been done that would see both competitors pass the finishing line together. They may be happy to do this because they both know the really big prizes in the human genome project are still some way off.

That is because the raw DNA code has limited value. It is merely a series of letters that correspond to the four chemical bases known as adenine (A), thymine (T), cytosine (C) and guanine (G).

What scientists really want to know, however, are the locations within the code of all the genes, the sections of sequence that cells use as templates to make proteins. It is these large molecules that build the body and maintain its systems.

It is this information that will be crucial to the new era of medicine and allow companies like Celera Genomics to make huge profits.

The publicly funded genome project is a joint effort of the US national Human Genome Research Institute at the country's National Institutes for Health, the US Department of Energy, the Whitehead Institute in Massachusetts, the UK Sanger Centre funded by the Wellcome Trust, the Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis and Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, both in the US.

It also includes contributions from researchers in Germany, France, Japan and China.

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See also:

30 May 00 | Human genome
Who owns the genome?
30 May 00 | Human genome
Reading the book of life
30 May 00 | Human genome
Genome: rights and wrongs
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