Human Genome Rivalry Stirs Among Public, Private Teams
Although Celera Genomics Corp., the privately funded group that mapped the human genome, and the publicly funded Human Genome Project, presented their first detailed analyses at a joint news conference yesterday, the two rival groups "remain highly critical of the other's approach," the New York Times reports. The Times also reports that the joint publication remains "as separate as a union could be." This week, Celera's 48-page article appears in the journal Science, based in Washington, while London-based Nature has published the Human Genome Project's 62-page report. The "rivalry" between the teams has often taken "petty forms," but the competition has "proved enormously beneficial overall," with both sides "in substantial measure achiev[ing] their goals" (Wade, New York Times, 2/12). According to Celera President and CSO J. Craig Venter, "We're very proud of what we've done. We know our data and our paper will stand the test of time" (Washington Post, 2/12). Science editor Dr. Donald Kennedy praised both the privately and publicly funded efforts. "I think the publicly funded group has brought off something extraordinary. ... They deserve all kinds of credit, but so does Venter and Celera. There is no doubt the world is getting this well before it otherwise would have if Venter had not entered the race," he said (New York Times, 2/11).
Still, Human Genome Project scientists have criticized Venter's "whole-genome shotgun" technique -- which he designed to decode entire the human genome as a "giant, 43 million-piece puzzle" -- arguing that his bold proposal "came up short." While they admitted that Venter produced a "high quality map of DNA," researchers pointed out that he "relied heavily" on data from the public effort after his "shotgun" technique failed. "All the king's horses and all the king's men could not put the genome together again," Dr. Eric Lander, a leader of the Human Genome Project from the Whitehead Center for Genome Research in Cambridge, Mass., said (Zitner, Los Angeles Times, 2/11). He added, "It didn't work." While Celera admitted that the company abandoned its original plan and "took advantage" of data from the public project to "save time and money" -- about $60 million -- officials maintained that the "shotgun" plan "would have worked." Venter also accused rivals of getting their "panties in a gather" over Celera's gene-sequencing technique, adding, "Eric Lander is obviously bothered by Celera's success. He's playing with half-truths and innuendos. I'm getting so I really don't care what his opinion is." The Post adds that, despite the "chorus of I-told-you-sos" from public scientists, "the world may never know" whether the "bolder approach" would have succeeded (Gillis, Washington Post, 2/12). In addition, the Times reports that Human Genome Project also "borrowed heavily" from Celera, "copying two of Venter's innovations" -- a "clever" technique for linking DNA sequencing data and reliance on "heavy-duty computing" to assemble data (New York Times, 12/11).
Meanwhile, according to the Wall Street Journal, "for all his braggadocio," Venter produced a genetic map "hungry" drug and biotechnology companies will "plun[k] down" millions of dollars per year to "sift through." The Journal calls Celera's human genome "more accurate, easier to read and more complete" than the Human Genome Project's version of the map, "making Celera as much a biotech industry standard as Microsoft is to computer software." Nathan Goodman of the Cambridge, Mass.-based consulting firm 3rd Millennium said, "Anyone who can afford to buy Celera should buy Celera." To "make the most of their money," Celera developed a "clever, tiered pricing system" that charges giant drug firms about $15 million a year, while charging smaller biotech companies less but requiring them to share future revenue from any drug discoveries made with the data. Several drug companies -- such as Pfizer Inc. and American Home Products Corp. -- and biotech firms have already "made important discoveries" that they "could not have made if they had access to only the public sequence," and some of the world's leading academic research centers -- including the entire University of California system -- have also become Celera customers (Hensley et al., Wall Street Journal, 2/12). However, public scientists have attacked Celera for "restricting access and charging" for its data. Venter dismissed the accusations as the criticisms of a "minority of scientists" who "wanted to have the human genome all to themselves" (BBC News, 2/12).
The Journal also profiles Lander, the "scientist many credit with keeping the public sector in the race" with Celera to decode the human genome. During the past two years, Lander has "done as much as any individual to shape the public sector's accelerated coding effort," the Journal reports. After revamping its operations, Lander's 125-member gene-sequencing team at the Whitehead facility produced 28% of the Human Genome Project's data, "keeping the public project neck-and-neck with Celera." Lander said, "Celera never imagined we could be a powerhouse. I think that was a big miscalculation on their part." According to colleague Elbert Branscomb, former director of the Department of Energy's Joint Genome Institute, Lander "has understood the strategic exigencies here much better than the rest of us." He added, "Science, like other enterprises, profits from the ambitious." Both the Human Genome Project and Celera announced the completion of the human genome map last June (Regalado, Wall Street Journal, 2/12).
Meanwhile, with scientists reporting yesterday that humans have about 26,000 to 40,000 genes, "Genesweep" -- a sweepstakes where scientists bet on the number of genes in the human genome -- just got a little bit more interesting. "Scientists are natural betting people," Ewan Birney, the 28-year-old computational biologist who developed Genesweep, said. He "dreamed up" the game last May at the annual genetics conference at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, and more than 400 scientists have recorded their bets in the contest's official log. Guesses range from about 27,000 genes to more than 312,000. While the pot stands at less than $500, scientists participating this year must "pony up" five dollars, and next year, with a more precise count of human genes expected, "a piece of the action" will cost $20. However, researchers argue that "no matter how much the winner ultimately takes home, the plunder ... is never the point." Michael Peskin, a theoretical physicist, concluded, "What we're really gambling on is our scientific reputation -- which is worth much more than a dinner or a bottle of wine" (Stroh,
Baltimore Sun, 2/12).