Scientists Announce DNA Mapping

Monday, June 26th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Clinton joined a government project and private venture Monday in announcing virtual completion of the first rough map of the human genetic code, an achievement Clinton called ``a day for the ages.''

Clinton, joined at the White House announcement by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who appeared by satellite transmission, hailed completion of the work after a 10-year race that cost billions.

Clinton, who had helped calm a bitter rivalry between public and private groups racing to complete the genome map, beamed with pride at the announcement before a large gathering at the White House.

``Today we are learning the language in which God created life,'' Clinton said. ``We are gaining ever more awe for the complexity, the beauty, the wonder of God's most divine and sacred gift.''

He called the achievement a ``day for the ages,'' and likened it to Galileo's celestial searchings and the mapping of the American wild by explorers Lewis and Clark. He also cautioned that the genetic map must never be used to segregate, discriminate or invade the privacy of human beings.

Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project of the National Institutes of Health, said the breakthrough allows humans for the first time to read ``our own instruction book. Today, we celebrate the revelation of the first draft of the human book of life.''

Said Blair: ``Let us be in no doubt about what we are witnessing today: A revolution in medical science whose implications far surpass even the discovery of antibiotics, the first great technological triumph of the 21st century.''

At a press conference in London, hours ahead the one scheduled here, the Human Genome Project announced that scientists had decoded the 3.1 billion sub-units of DNA, the chemical ``letters'' that make up the recipe of human life.

The chemical mapping for more than 90 percent of human DNA, seen as one of history's great scientific milestones, has been keenly fought over, and the Human Genome Project initially embargoed the information with its joint announcement in Washington with the private company, Celera Genomics, of Rockville, Md.

But an announcement so significant proved impossible to suppress, and British media immediately reported the news conference.

To map the human genome, the publicly financed Human Genome Project and the parallel private effort by Celera had to decipher some 3.1 billion sub-units of DNA, the chemical letters that code biological workings of humans.

Within the DNA there are an estimated 50,000 or more genes. These determine what a person inherits from parents and how well the cells function through out a lifetime. Flawed or missing genes can cause disease.

Mapping the entire human genome is seen as one of history's great scientific milestones, the biological equivalent of the moon landing.

Now, ``the real work begins,'' Dr. Francis Collins, head of the National Human Genome Research Institute, said in advance of Clinton's announcement.

``We've been racing down white water in a narrow channel trying to get the sequencing done,'' Collins said in an interview. ``Now we're opening into the ocean'' where the research possibilities and the effects on medicine are almost limitless.

``There is a very long list of things that we can now do, all of which will greatly benefit medicine,'' said Collins. Researchers now will concentrate on finding disease-causing genes and developing therapies that treat disorders at the fundamental, molecular level.

In London, Dr. Michael Dexter of Britain's Wellcome Trust, a part of the public project, said: ``Mapping the human genome has been compared to putting a man on the moon. But I believe that in terms of the future impact on society, the human genome project will be seen as the outstanding achievement, not only of our lifetime, but perhaps in the history of mankind.''

``This code really is the essence of mankind,'' he added.

Dexter said the research should be available to all — an apparent jibe at Celera boss, American scientist-entrepreneur J.Craig Venter, who has made no secret of wanting to profit from the discovery, possibly by patenting it. ``It should not be owned by one individual, one company, or one country,'' he said.

Scientists believe that eventually medicine will be able to identify from birth the diseases that a person may develop and to provide treatment to extend life and health beyond what was ever possible before.

``It's a giant resource,'' said James D. Watson, the American scientist who won the Nobel Prize for Physiology for his work in discovering the double-helix structure of DNA in the early 1950s.

``Now we have the instruction book for human life and will have the instruction books for many other forms of life,'' Watson said in a telephone interview with British Broadcasting Corp. radio.

``Things are just going to move faster. After the printing press, there was an explosion, more people could have information. We'll understand ourselves better, have a better idea of what human nature is.''

``The information obtained from the generic blueprint will have major implications for understanding disease processes — especially cancer,'' said Sir Paul Nurse, director general of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund.

The public project is a joint effort of agencies of the American National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy, several universities and the Wellcome Trust in England. Researchers in Germany and Japan also participated.

Researchers now will turn their attention toward identifying the proteins made by the genes. This research will determine the function of about a million proteins in the body and then devise therapeutic drugs. Researchers believe ultimately doctors will tailor treatment to individuals and even correct genetic flaws before birth.