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Witness 2000: review of the year David Concar
David Concar on the historic recording of the Human Genome
Human genome montage
In this month:
Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party returned to power in Zimbabwe after elections marred by violence. The first summit between North and South Korea took place in Pyongyang. Hafez Assad, Syria’s ruler of 30 years, died.
Greek guerrilla group November 17 killed a British diplomat in Athens.
In the UK, 58 Chinese immigrants were found dead in a lorry at the port of Dover. Prime Minister Tony Blair was slow-handclapped by the Women’s Institute annual conference.
Irish republican dissidents bombed a London bridge. Soho pub bomber David Copeland was jailed for life.
Another bridge, the Millennium Bridge opened but then closed because of a rather obvious wobble.
The Queen met the Prince of Wales’ partner Camilla Parker Bowles for the first time since the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.
Anglo-Dutch conglomerate Unilever bought Bestfoods for $20.3bn – creating the world's second biggest food company.
Another large company, Microsoft faced being broken up after losing its anti-trust battle in the US courts.
The Vatican revealed that the "Third secret of Fatima" - reportedly conveyed by the Virgin Mary to three girls in 1917 - was a message of optimism.
British explorer David Hempleman-Adams laid claim to being the first person to balloon to the North Pole - even though he missed it by 13 miles.
Tiger Woods won the centenary US Masters Golf tournament with the largest margin of victory in a major yet.
Dowager Empress Nagako, the wife of Emperor Hirohito, the last ruler of Japan to be worshipped as a "living god", died.
Best of BBC coverage:
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The Human Genome
Millions of pages of data hid a secret - that of human life itself. Science correspondent David Concar met the people who were decoding humanity itself.

Read the transcript

Tradition has it that great scientific advances are made by unworldly professors toiling in dingy basement labs for scant reward.

The American scientist Craig Venter is of a very different mould.

I met him back in May just as he and his company were putting the finishing touches to the masterpiece they hoped would bring them fame and fortune.

They were attempting to map the human genome.

A massive project that was a bit like trying to decipher and write down the complete instruction manual for making a human being.

Already newspapers were billing it as the biggest thing in science since the moon landings.

We arrived at the gleaming headquarters of Venter's company, just outside Washington DC, in good time ... to find Venter in the middle of a photo-shoot for Time magazine.

The interview would have to wait but we could have our guided tour.

On one floor robotic devices whirred and clicked as they manipulated samples of human DNA.

On another stood endless rows of beige-coloured machines, all busy decoding pieces of the genetic blueprint.

They looked a bit like photocopiers. This was biological research on an industrial scale.

The book of human life was being deciphered not by wit or ingenuity. It was being ground out by soulless machines.

But then this was a book no sane human being would ever want to read.

A typical person's genetic blueprint is made up of three billion chemical bits, each spelling a single letter in the code.

Written out in full it would fill five hundred telephone directories. And most of it is gibberish.

The important stretches--the bits that actually spell out the colour of your hair and the shape of your nose--are the genes.

But these are few and far between and difficult to spot unless you're a supercomputer.

Craig Venter had plenty of supercomputers thanks to his Wall Street backers.

And by May he was close to piecing together a version of the entire blueprint. What's more, he'd got there in a matter of months.

Venter's rivals, an assortment of publicly funded scientists in the US and Britain, were rattled.

They'd been at it for years but were now having to work overtime just to keep up.

In the race to read the book of life, private money and big business seemed to be winning.

And a war of sharp words was breaking out between the two sides.

Venter told me how he thought his rivals had squandered vast amounts of taxpayers' money by moving too slowly.

They in turn accused him of cutting corners to please shareholders and, more seriously, of trying to turn the human genome into private property.

The great fear was that Venter would keep his version of the blueprint under wraps until he and his big business clients had patented the most lucrative bits of it - all the genes that might lead to new medical tests and drugs.

Wealthy, driven and somewhat brash, Venter was easy to caricature as a power mad scientist--even if the truth was subtler.

Most people were worried enough already about the human genome project fuelling a brave new world of designer babies and genetic discrimination at the workplace.

So the prospect of vast numbers of human genes falling into private hands simply added to their concerns.

Venter's fiercest critic from the rival camp was John Sulston, a bearded English scientist of left-leaning politics and no great personal wealth.

Throughout May Sulston kept the pressure up, telling the media time and again how vital it was the human genome was owned by the people not big business.

Then, suddenly, there was an eerie silence. It was June and both camps were inching ever closer to the finishing line.

Dotting every i and t of this massive code would take years, so completing the first rough draft would count as victory.

But in the end there was no outright winner. An eleventh hour deal was struck.

The great genome race was to be called a draw so that everyone could bask in the glory of the achievement -particularly President Bill Clinton.

So, on the last Monday of the month we all watched as the leader of the free world strolled up to a podium in Washington DC to announce that the book of man had been read by scientists.

To his left was Francis Collins, leader of the public effort. To his right stood a beaming Craig Venter.

We heard much that day about the medical benefits the genome project would eventually bring--new tests, new drugs, a new era in health care.

Much, too, about the need to guard against its misuse.

It would be a tragedy, we were told, if this treasure trove of information would ever be used to discriminate against people on the basis of their genetic makeup.

And a tragedy, too, if it led to profiteering.

Fine words, all of them. But six months on little concrete has come from them.

In Europe and the US, it's still possible to patent human genes - and many companies are doing just that.

Bit by bit, most of the prime parts of the human genome are falling into private hands.

As for Craig Venter, well, his company's still not made its version of the blueprint freely available to other scientists.

In May, Venter told me that responsible ownership of genes was all for the best.

It would speed the development of life-saving drugs, he said. And he meant it.

This was a talented scientist gripped by frustration at the slow pace of medical research who wanted to make a difference.

Alas, this was also a scientist on his way to achieving greatness with someone else's private dollars.

And he who pays the piper calls the tune.