- The Washington Times - Monday, June 26, 2000

Scientists are set to announce the completion of a "working draft" of the human genome a remarkable feat they say is immensely more significant than man's landing on the moon.

The five countries involved in a project to map the human genome the United States, France, Britain, Japan and China will announce their results today, according to Chris Mihill, a spokesman for the Wellcome Trust, the medical research organization sponsoring the scientific work at Cambridge University in southeastern England.

The draft is a key that will unlock the mysteries of heredity and the sources of disease. It is a basic tool medical researchers will use in finally devising ways to prevent or cure such intractable diseases as Alzheimer's, diabetes, spinal cord injuries, heart disease, cystic fibrosis, hemophilia, cancer and others.

"Producing the human genome draft has more far-reaching consequences than the moon landing because the landing was essentially a technical feat. Sequencing the genome is a technical achievement, too. But it's more. It's important in many, many ways that relate directly to people. It affects basic research and medical science," says geneticist Peter Bruns of Cornell University.

Although sequencing the 3 billion parts of the human genome is by all accounts an epic accomplishment and establishes a scientific landmark, its impact has been blunted. And news about it well may leave many members of the public confused.

That's because there have been repeated excited announcements when individual chromosomes or genome segments were identified, and each discovery was celebrated as a revolutionary breakthrough. Then, too, it is difficult for the nonscientist to comprehend exactly what researchers really have achieved by probing the largely invisible molecular world.

To get a rough idea, imagine scientists studying Earth from a distant planet maybe Mars. Using telescopes they plot the city, then record the location of every house on every block of every street on the globe.

"But it goes further than that," says Mr. Bruns. "It's as if the distant scientists on Mars use their equipment and techniques to produce detailed plans and drawings for every single house and all the utilities and equipment in all the houses.

"It's as if they work this way: They see what the houses have in common. All have refrigerators, so they conclude that's important. Then they analyze refrigerators to see what they have in common. Maybe it's the compressor. So they analyze compressors and record what they do, and so on."

Instead of telescopes, the biologists have used microscopes to peer into human cells and, more recently, complex sequencing machines, chemical detectors and powerful computers. Then they investigated the cell's chromosomes, then the chromosomes' DNA and the DNA's genes.

Thus researchers have isolated and depicted a full set of all 23 human chromosomes. In fact the term "human genome" means a full set of chromosomes, which contain all of a human's inheritable traits. The draft of the genome is, in effect, a blueprint of life a useful guide, showing how the basic chemicals of life are ordered.

Scientists refer to this initial human genome as a working draft because it is incomplete. It's roughly equivalent to a map that depicts an entire state and outlines highways and main roads, but omits certain secondary roads and paths. What it shows, it shows in detail, reported in thousands of rows of letters on reams of paper cranked from high speed computers.

The government-funded international Human Genome Project consortium includes scientists in 16 mostly academic centers in France, Germany, Japan, China, Great Britain and the United States. It is dominated by American laboratories and Britain's Sanger Centre at Cambridge University.

In the United States, sequencing is done at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Mass., and at various Department of Energy laboratories in California.

The National Institutes of Health's Human Genome Research Institute coordinates and directs the $300,000,000 a year U.S. effort.

For the last 10 years, each of the consortium labs have been sequencing individual chromosomes. The results have now been assembled into one working draft.

Celera Genomics Corp., a 2-year-old, investor-owned company in Rockville, boldly undertook to sequence all the chromosomes at once, in what founder and president Dr. J. Craig Venter of Celera Genomics has called "a whole genome shotgun."

Dr. Venter, a former NIH scientist and director of the Institute for Genomics Research, had espoused that approach while at NIH. But various members of the consortium objected. They declared the process unworkable.

Faced with his colleagues' intransigence, Dr. Venter quit, founded Celera and proved his critics wrong.

Nonetheless, members of the consortium say their work has aided Dr. Venter and helped speed Celera's sequencing. The claim rests on the fact that since 1996, consortium members have been publishing the results of their work on the World Wide Web for all researchers to use.

Celera's scientists presumably have incorporated the consortium's finding into their finished product. If so, that well may have saved Celera time and effort.

It has became common in past years to refer to the competition between Celera and the consortium as a race. But Dr. Venter has said that, if there has been a race, it has been to the starting line.

For as he and almost everyone else sees it, the working draft has opened a new universe for scientists to explore. The effort to identify the specific genes that cause given illnesses will intensify and quicken. Likewise attempts to perfect ways of curing or preventing illness by inserting replacement genes into cells that have missing or damaged copies of the gene will accelerate.

Scientists also agree that although these miraculous medical advances won't come overnight and there are years or decades of discovery to come, the genome draft makes it possible to forge ahead.

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