Scientists announced today that they have cracked most of the genetic code, unlocking the secrets of human DNA.
“This is a great day,” President Clinton said at a White House event to commemorate the achievement by two rival groups — the publicly funded Human Genome Project and the private Celera Genomics.
Experts consider the decoding of the human gene structure to be one of history’s great scientific milestones, sort of the biological equivalent of landing on the moon.
‘Most Wondrous Map Ever Produced’
President Clinton compared the genetic maps revealed today to the maps that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark presented to President Thomas Jefferson nearly two centuries ago.
“Today the world is joining us to celebrate a map of even greater significance,” he said. “Without a doubt this is the most important, most wondrous map ever produced by humankind.”
What Celera and the publicly funded consortium offered are “working drafts” of the genome. The versions offer broad outlines of our thousands of genes. In its finished form, the decoded human genome will effectively provide a guidebook to the human body, which may become crucial in diagnosing and treating disease.
Each genome contains 30,000-100,000 genes holding the basic information that makes us who we are: the color of our eyes, our intelligence, the diseases to which we are susceptible and more. Some 3.1 billion pieces of DNA make up human life. When all the genetic information is gathered it will contain enough information to fill 200 telephone books.
Doctors and scientists may be able to use this information to create new drugs and treatments, and even cure disease. Scientists may be able to tell whether someone has the gene for Parkinson’s disease, for example, and then prescribe a treatment.
Fast Finish The push to decode the human genome began about 10 years ago when scientists from the Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health recommended to Congress that the government fund the effort in a 15-year project.
In 1998, Craig Venter, a former geneticist at the National Institutes of Health, splintered off to form his own decoding company. With advanced sequencing machines and computer programs at hand, Venter claimed he could outpace the government effort and complete the sequencing project in less than three years.
The government consortium kept pace with Venter’s challenge and today both groups have shown that a fast finish of the genome mapping is possible.
Clinton revealed today that Celera and the public consortium now plan to work together to complete a “virtually error-free final draft” of the human genome within three years. That deadline, the president pointed out, will mark the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the DNA double helix.
Real Benefits Years Away
But while the project took 10 years, any cures could be many more years away.
And this information comes with a price tag: Celera is already charging drug companies, $5 million to $15 million for access to the data.
“The next step is a mad rush by companies all over the world to locate every single gene inside the mall, because these genes are the most valuable resource of the 21st century,” said Eric Lander, director of the Whitehead Center for Genome Research.
Pharmaceutical companies are particularly interested in identifying the genes for diseases such as asthma and cancer, which could yield lucrative treatments. And some companies have even begun to patent their research.
Information about our genes could be helpful, but some implications are disturbing and dangerous. Genetic information has been used by some companies when hiring.
Legislation now being considered in Capitol Hill would guarantee genetic privacy.
“As we unlock the secrets of the human genome, we must work simultaneously to ensure that new discoveries never pry open the doors of privacy,” the president said. “And we must guarantee that genetic information cannot be used to stigmatize or discriminate against any individual or group.”
Others also worry about even bigger questions.
“I’m concerned that some day we may decide to start modifying the human genome to think that we can do better than the genome,” Lander said.
The Sequence of Life
Decoding the genome involves placing in correct order the 3.1 billion base pairs, or subunits, that make up human DNA. This DNA contains some 50,000 genes, but no one knows the exact number.
Once the genes are identified, researchers then must identify the proteins made by those genes, determine the function of that protein in the body and then devise therapeutic drugs.
The public gene-sequencing program is a joint effort of the national Human Genome Research Institute at the NIH, the Department of Energy, the Wellcome Trust in Britain, the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Mass., the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, along with contributions from researchers in Germany and Japan.
Dr. Francis Collins, head of the National Human Genome Research Institute, said deciphering the genome will eventually revolutionize medicine, but it will be decades before the full benefits are realized.
“Today is most certainly not the end of genomics, but it is perhaps the end of the beginning,” Collins said.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair also joined today’s ceremonies by satellite. In introducing the prime minister, President Clinton noted that Blair became a new father to a baby boy in the same year that the genomic project was finished.
Clinton remarked that this was significant, saying, “I think his life expectancy has just gone up by about 25 years.”
ABCNEWS’ Jim Sciutto and Michael Guillen and The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.