You wouldn’t just read the first chapter of a book and then stop. Nor would you go to the theatre and see one act of a play and then leave. Same was true for DNA sequencing. Once scientists began to reveal human genes in the 1980s, they began to wonder, why not expose the entire human genetic code? Enter automation. With the introduction of automated techniques, no longer was deciphering the whole human genome a fantasy. In 1986 both Renato Dulbecco and Sydney Brenner called upon the US government and the European Union, respectively, to support efforts to begin the huge undertaking of coding the human genome.
It wasn’t long after that the U.S. Department of Energy took over the task. It was the Department’s belief that learning more and unlocking the human genome was “as necessary to the continuing progress of medicine and other health sciences”. Others weren’t so sure, convinced that the task was too ambitious and too expensive to take on.
By 1990 the verdict was in, and the international Human Genome Project was underway. Headed by James Watson, it was the Project’s goal to read every one of the 3 billion base pairs, a task that was estimated to take 15 years, and $3 billion. Even with that price tag, research began and by 1998 three percent of the code had emerged, at the same time that competition began to surface from the private sector. Craig Venter, who had been working with the public consortium and had identified more genes than any other, struck a deal with the DNA sequencing machine manufacturing company to produce his own version of the genome – to the tune of $300 million. Venter and his company, Celera, claimed they could finish the project in just two to three years, with the use of his new technique, called whole-genome shotgun sequencing.
No one had thought that there would be a possibility of competition within this space, and the differences in each groups approach to the mapping was very clear. The public group went about chunking the genome into smaller parts, cloning copies in bacteria, mapping these clones’ positions on their chromosomes, breaking them down further to sequence and reassemble them by matching up their overlapping ends, and then mapping them back to the chromosomal positions. This process would provide the group with the complete code. On the other hand, Celera – which derived its name from the Latin term for “speed” – skipped the mapping stage and instead assembled the whole genome at once with little fragments, hence the “shotgun” name.
The differences between the groups didn’t stop at the mapping process. While the Human Genome Project saw the genetic code and its findings to be “universal property of humankind” and wanted to openly allow anyone to access it within a public database, Celera was a business. They were of the belief that this information was to be sold to databases that would then use this information to find new genes and develop new drugs. This view lead many within the scientific community to think of Venter as a “genetic pirate”.
So who won the race? Venter and his team finished first, but due to the fact that the public team was nearly finished by the team of his completion, he agreed to a draw. And thanks to then President Bill Clinton and his April 2000 announcement that the genome should be public property, the two parties came together to announce their sequencing completion, and all data was made public.
Reference: Henderson, Mark, Joanne Baker, and A. J. Crilly. "Chapter 9 - The human genome." 100 Most Important Science Ideas: Key Concepts in Genetics, Physics and Mathematics.