Coming Next Year: Our Genetic Code

By the ides of March 2000, researchers should have almost the entire human genome in their grasp. Earlier today, the major backers of the Human Genome Project, an international effort to parse out the 3 billion base pairs making up the human genetic code, boosted support to four centers involved in the high-speed production of sequence data. The new infusion of funds should enable scientists to complete a rough draft of 90% of the human genome way ahead of schedule.

The announcement is good news for scientists searching for genes involved in diseases or studying other biological questions. Already, the yeast and nematode genomes, as well as some human data from pilot projects, "have created a real enthusiasm for more [sequence information]," says Robert Waterston, director of the sequencing center at Washington University in St. Louis. The increased speed with which sequences will be put into public databases will also make it more difficult for private companies to patent human DNA.

The U.S. National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) today awarded Washington University $33.3 million, the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, $34.9 million, and Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, $13.4 million to spend on new sequencing machines, automation, and personnel. The money will allow the three centers to churn out about 60% of the genome. The British Wellcome Trust is providing the Sanger Centre, just outside Cambridge, U.K., with another $77 million, enabling that sequencing center to complete a third of the human genome. The Department of Energy's Joint Genome Institute is covering the remaining 10%.

Given that pilot sequencing projects were having trouble meeting their goals this time last year, the new target completion date "is unbelievable," says Glen Evans, a geneticist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. The bold move reflects a growing confidence that recent improvements in automation and quality control can lower the cost of sequencing to less than 10 cents per base pair. "All the pieces fell together, and now we have a rock-solid way to sequence the genome accurately," says geneticist Eric Lander, who ran one of the pilot sequencing projects at the Whitehead Institute. Thanks in part to those efforts, 10% of the human genome is already complete, says NHGRI director Francis Collins. And more data is piling up daily, he adds, so that "every time we talk, we move [the deadline] up."