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.