NIH Aims for Early "Working Draft" of Human Genome by 2001

BETHESDA, MARYLAND--The U.S. government, responding to growing competition from private companies, is planning to speed up its effort to decode the entire human genome. The National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) unveiled a 5-year plan here yesterday that promises to produce a "working draft" of the human genome--including highly accurate sequences of most of the protein-coding regions--by 2001. The plan also promises to yield a polished, gold-standard version of the entire genome by 2003, 2 years ahead of the old schedule.

If successful, this scheme, according to some of NHGRI's advisers, will release data so rapidly that private companies may not be able to get exclusive rights to all the DNA they hoped to patent. The information gleaned from deciphering the genetic code is expected to yield new insights into how the human body functions and sometimes goes awry, and it will point the way to new diagnoses and treatments.

The government decided to step up its effort after DNA sequencer J. Craig Venter and his private backer--the Perkin-Elmer Corp. of Norwalk, Connecticut--announced in May that they were going to decode the entire human genome in just 3 years. Then, in August, Incyte Pharmaceuticals Inc. of Palo Alto, California, joined the race. It said it was going after the entire human genome too, aiming to get all the genes in 2 years.

Francis Collins, director of NHGRI, says the new plan should yield a "working draft" of the genome by 2001 that will include highly accurate DNA sequence for about one-third of the genome's 3 billion bases--including complete versions of a majority of the genes--and less accurate data for most of the rest. After 2001, the plan says, researchers will close the gaps and polish the data, producing a final draft in 2003 with a one in 10,000 error rate.

Robert Waterston, director of the sequencing center at Washington University in St. Louis, says that there was "considerable debate among the centers" about whether to speed up the government's effort, but now "the mood is strongly convergent." Richard Gibbs, director of the sequencing center at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, says he thinks there are "almost no reservations" about the plan today--mainly because people have become more skilled in fixing flaws in the data and more adept in using the technology.