Genome Submission Sparks Dissent

A controversy over the human genome has broken the silence that usually surrounds research papers under review at a scientific journal. Celera Genomics, a biotech company in Rockville, Maryland, announced on 6 December that it has submitted a report on the human genome sequence to Science (ScienceNOW's publisher). At the same time, Michael Ashburner, a well-known British geneticist and former Science reviewing editor, issued an open letter denouncing Science for considering Celera's paper, because he says the company is seeking special terms.

Ashburner, a Cambridge University expert on the fruit fly, is upset that Science has reached an agreement with Celera that will allow the company to release its data through its own Web site rather than through a public database, as is normally done. "I am ... outraged and angry," Ashburner wrote, arguing that Science is custom-tailoring its policies for Celera. The change, he argued, will fragment genetic data resources.

For 2 decades, Science and the journal Nature have insisted that papers on DNA sequencing be accompanied by release of data to a public database. In practice, authors deposited information in one place: GenBank, a system maintained by three centers, including the European Bioinformatics Institute near Cambridge, United Kingdom, of which Ashburner is co-director. But Celera used private funds to pay for its DNA sequencing and wanted to retain some control of its DNA data. Specifically, it plans to ask users to agree, through a "click-wrap" agreement on the Web site, not to commercialize the information without Celera's consent. The company insisted that DNA data be released through its Web site, that unrestricted academic users be limited to downloading no more than 1 megabyte of data, that those seeking larger downloads submit a letter from their institution promising not to redistribute the data, and that industry scientists accept other restrictions.

Science Editor-in-Chief Donald Kennedy issued a response to Ashburner yesterday. It said that the existing principle that DNA data must be publicly released has been "fully upheld in our agreement with Celera, which has agreed to make the entire sequence available free of charge." The statement says the arrangement allows public access to data "that might otherwise not be open to public scrutiny." Asked about Ashburner's concern about the need to avoid fragmenting data sources, Kennedy said: "I think he has a point," adding that "we need to think about ways to avoid it" in the future.