Rat race. The new genome project aims for fast work.

It's the Rat's Turn

Even as sequencing groups struggle to finish the human genome, they've already taken on a big new assignment: the Norway brown rat. Now the pace will pick up. Last week, the U.S. government plunked down about $60 million in new money to have three labs--one academic center and two private companies--race ahead on the rat genome.

A public-private effort to sequence the mouse genome is under way, promising a rough draft this year and a finished, or gap-free, sequence by 2005. The rat is needed, researchers say, because it has been used more than the mouse for studies of physiology, and it offers an independent view of how genes work in a rodent. Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI)--which is funding this initiative jointly with the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute--says that having the genomes of three of the most important mammals in biomedical research in hand "will greatly speed the unraveling of the genetics and physiology" of human disease.

The rat project brings together scientists who until a few weeks ago were competitors, melding their techniques. Richard Gibbs and colleagues at the genome center at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, will lead the effort, and a group at Celera Genomics in Rockville, Maryland, will add brute-force sequencing power. Genome Therapeutics in Waltham, Massachusetts, will provide more sequencing muscle.

Both commercial teams will abide by a new set of mandatory data-release rules established last December. These require grantees to make public on a weekly basis raw information taken directly from sequencing machines--more detailed data than were required from human genome sequencers. The groups have agreed not to patent or use the data for research before making them public through the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

Researchers are delighted by the pace of the project. "I have been a banner waver for the rat genome" for nearly a decade, says Howard Jacob, a molecular biologist at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. "I'm ecstatic about the speed with which the public sector is investing in this project."

Related sites
NHGRI's policy on release of genomic sequence data
National Human Genome Research Institute
Baylor College of Medicine