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Monday, 26 June, 2000, 17:17 GMT 18:17 UK
Gene row is over
Let's be friends: Dr Venter (left) and Dr Collins at the White House
By BBC News Online's Dr Damian Carrington

Almost as remarkable as decoding the genome itself is the turn around in the relationship between the publicly and privately funded teams.

Not that many months ago, Dr John Sulston, director of the UK part of the Human Genome Project, attacked Dr Craig Venter, head of the private company Celera Genomics, saying: "Celera want to establish a monopoly sequence on the human sequence - Craig has gone morally wrong."

Dr Venter was no less vitriolic in his comments: "It is much easier to demonise Celera than justify the hundreds of millions of dollars the Human Genome Project has wasted."

But when US President Bill Clinton faced the world's media on 26 June to applaud the genome achievement, he was flanked by rivals Dr Venter and the US HGP leader, Dr Francis Collins.

These two had attempted to find ways of working together between October 1999 and February 2000, but the talks broke down in acrimony.

Question of ownership

The key issue was public access to genome data. The HGP posts its new data on the internet every night, for free download. Celera has said it will make its data public but has yet to do so. The HGP was particularly concerned that its data could become part of the commercial database that Celera intends to sell to customers.

Mr Blair and Mr Clinton shared a satellite link-up
Mr Clinton and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair showed their concerns over the patenting of genetic information in March in joint announcement which sent genome companies' shares tumbling.

The nature of the deal struck between the president, the HGP and Celera has not been revealed. But it is possible to speculate on the motivations.

Most important is the fact that Celera is believed to have won the race to the first draft. They could have made an announcement and taken the applause but they would have risked a backlash of negative publicity from those concerned over private "ownership" of the genome.

Heavy political pressure to adopt a more open attitude to sharing their data is also likely to have influenced Celera. And, by sharing the credit with the public researchers, a positive public relations boost was gained.

Dead heat

For the HGP, embracing the enemy means they avoided the ignominy of being second in the race. They risked losing to an upstart which began much later and cost less money, and their claim that they did the groundwork would not count for much.

I am happy that today the only race we are talking about is the human race

Dr Francis Collins
Finally, the politicians can not only bask in the reflected glory of the joint announcement but also secure to some extent future safeguards on the use of the genetic data.

Backing this analysis is the equal billing given to the maverick Dr Venter and the establishment's Dr Collins at the White House ceremony. Mr Clinton and Mr Blair both praised the benefits of the "robust and healthy competition" Dr Venter introduced.

These plaudits are most unlikely to have been given if Dr Venter had not been in a position of power, i.e. having a complete draft in hand.

Dr Sulston: "Proud to have fought"
Mr Clinton said: "I am so pleased to announce that from this moment forward the robust and healthy competition that has lead us to this day will be coupled with enhanced public and private co-operation. The public and private efforts are committed to publishing their genomic data simultaneously later this year.

"They will then join together for an historic sequence analysis conference. Together they will examine what scientific insights have been gleaned from both efforts and how we can most judiciously proceed towards the next horizons."

The editor-in-chief of the journal science, Donald Kennedy, welcomed the end of the arguments: "The research leaders of the HGP and Celera Genomics deserve congratulations for their enlightened decision to merge their efforts in this productive collaboration."

Genetic control

Bridges have been built in the US between the two side - neither made any negative comment about the other on Monday.

But the UK's Dr John Sulston still seems only partly reconciled.

At the announcement in London, he said he had fought to ensure that the genome data did not fall into the hands of a private monopoly.

"I didn't want my genetic information to be under the control of any one person," he said.

"I regret having to fight, but I am proud that I did."

 Dr John Sulston, Sanger Centre, UK: "In 1998, rather sadly in my opinion, the American effort split into a private and a public effort"

On the so-called "race" between the public and private sectors, Dr Sulston said Celera's intervention had not, in his view, speeded things up that much. The rough draft probably came just a year earlier than it would have done without the competition, he told the news conference.





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26 Jun 00 | Science/Nature
26 Jun 00 | Science/Nature
26 Jun 00 | Science/Nature
03 Dec 99 | Science/Nature
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