Deny Genome Map Race
AP Science Writer
5:14 PM EDT; June 6, 2000; Washington, D.C. (AP) -- Leaders of two groups mapping the human genes said they are not in a race, but are trying to reach the same goal using different methods and the results will be "complementary." Dr. Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health program to map the human genome, and Dr. Craig Venter, President of Celera Genomics, a private Maryland company doing the same thing, shook hands and complimented each other in a brief meeting Tuesday at an NIH Conference. Asked about their competition, Collins told reporters, "racing is the wrong metaphor. I wish you would stop using it." Instead, Collins said the federally funded project and the private effort by Venter's company are using different ways to explore new territories. Venter agreed, saying the efforts of the two organizations are "complementary."
A Celera spokeswoman said results from the two efforts will be used to "double check" each other for accuracy in the sequencing of the 3.1 billion DNA subunits in the human genome. Venter hinted that Collins' group and his company may be in discussions about a joint announcement, but declined to be specific. He said that earlier the two groups had discussed the possibility of negotiating a cooperative agreement, but nothing was firmed up. Collins leads the National Human Genome Research Institute, which is part of an international, government-funded effort to sequence and map all of the human genes. The consortium is nearing completion of "the working draft," which would mean 90 percent of the genome had been sequenced and checked for accuracy, officials said.
Venter is using a computer-driven method he helped pioneer to map the genome. Celera announced last month that it has sequenced the genes for one human being and may complete assembly of the sequences this month, possibly reaching the goal before NIH. A bitter rivalry has been reported between Venter and Collins' group. But the two were all smiles Tuesday. "The controversy has been painful for both of us," said Venter. "But a good effect is that the world is far more aware of genomics (the study of genes) than before."
"Competition is a good thing,'' added Collins. "It gets the blood stirred up." The two were speakers at the annual scientific conference of the General Motors Cancer Research Foundation. In his remarks, Venter said his company would "publicly and freely" release its map of the human genome when it was completed. The announcement came after some researchers had charged that Celera was withholding gene information to sell the data to drug companies. The government-funded effort puts its genetic data on the Internet daily, available to all. Venter said his company will do the same when the project is complete. "A lot of credit goes to Celera," said Collins after the announcement. "They are taking this data, that they paid dearly for, and making it available to the academic community." Asked how Celera will make a profit if the information is given away, Venter said his firm would sell its interpretation and the use of its massive gene-analysis computer system. Celera's $100 million facility in Maryland is one of the largest civilian computer assemblages in the world.
Celera already has completed, or been a partner in, genetic maps for a microbe and the fruit fly, and is about a third of the way through a project to sequence genes of a strain of laboratory mice. The human genome is all of the genes that direct an individual's biological development and the functioning of the cells.
On the Web:
(1) nhgri.nih.gov ;
(2) Celera Web Event Broadcast .
Making Peace in
the Genome Race
2:00 PM PDT; June 7, 2000; (Wired Magazine News) -- The two teams racing to map all the genes in the human body appear to have ended the ongoing hostility between them. The leaders of Celera, the for-profit company, and the government-funded Human Genome Project declared that there is no race to finish their respective projects, and congratulated each other on their accomplishments.
Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the Human Genome Project, and Dr. Craig Venter, Chief Scientific Officer of Celera Genomics, held an impromptu meeting on Tuesday during a Conference on Cancer and the Genome sponsored by General Motors, Inc. After months of public sniping, the two scientists reportedly displayed surprising amounts of mutual respect for each other. The sudden affection between the two might suggest that they have made a deal to jointly announce their completion of the human genome, observers said. "Whether that means there will be a joint announcement is anybody's guess," said Billy Coble, a spokesman for Celera. The HGP refused to comment on a possible collaborative announcement. The BBC reported that Celera has completed its working draft of the genome this past weekend, although no official announcement has been made. HGP researchers said they should pass the finishing line near the middle of June.
In the past, Venter has maintained that he hopes a collaboration with public sector researchers like the one to map the fruit fly genome could be achieved. It may be too late for a research collaboration on the human genome, but perhaps the researchers have at least agreed to share the limelight. "I think the question is, would it be good for the business or is it the right thing to do? Perhaps this is a little of both," said Cyrus Harmon, President and CEO of Neomorphic, a Berkeley-based genomics company.
The HGP, which has been ongoing for the past ten years and has spent about $2 billion, posts its genome sequencing data on a website called GenBank every 24 hours, which is available to other researchers to use in their own experiments. Celera researchers, who announced their project last September and have spent only $250 million, have used the GenBank data for portions of their research.
The positive vibe between the two is in stark contrast to previous and very public vitriol between the leaders of the two groups. The drama made for media fodder, with Venter often portrayed as a villain and Collins as the good guy. Collins has accused Venter of exaggerating claims that it finished the sequencing phase of the human genome map in April and questioned the accuracy of Celera's data. Venter has accused Collins of squandering the public's tax dollars.
In the interest of strengthening their business, Celera researchers might improve their standing with investors if the company cooperates in some way with the HGP, if nothing else by seeming less-the-villain by association. In January, news that an attempted collaboration on research had collapsed was followed by a bitter exchange of letters between Venter and researchers with the HGP.
Venter and Collins both said the media had exaggerated the idea of a footrace between Celera and the HGP. Collins even gave credit to Celera officials for their promise to publish Celera's data in a scientific journal, making the raw data from the project they have spent millions on available to all researchers. In the end, researchers seem to agree that it's the science, not who wins the race, that's important.
The human genome map will have a profound effect on public health -- When completed, it will give medical researchers the fodder they need to predict, prevent, and hopefully treat disease. "This is a watershed event that will change the ways we do science forever," Harmon said. "We'll look back on this in ten years, and we don't be able to imagine how we did science without knowing the genome."