Scientists map one third of human genome
By Deborah Zabarenko
WASHINGTON, Nov 23 (Reuters) -- Scientists said on Tuesday that they have determined the exact order of 1 billion of the basic chemical building blocks of life, which puts them one third of the way toward their goal of sequencing the human genome -- mapping the complete set of human genes.
Amid star-shaped balloons and a crowd wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the twisted ladder of the DNA molecule, Francis Collins, the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, congratulated geneticists from California to Cambridge, Massachusetts to Cambridge, England.
"We are happy to be here to have a party today.... One billion base pairs and counting!" Collins told a gathering at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC.
Collins was referring to the four different chemicals, known as bases, which form the rungs of the ladder that is the DNA molecule. Every bit of genetic information is encoded in DNA, from hair and eye color to predisposition to diseases.
The bases -- identified by the letters A, C, G and T -- sit on the DNA ladder's steps in pairs, and there are thought to be about 3 billion steps in the ladder.
Also on hand in Washington were Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala and Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, whose agencies are participating in the global project. The party was linked by video, telephone and the Internet with other research centers devoted to the project.
Scientists launched the human genome project in 1990 as part of an effort to determine genetic factors behind diseases ranging from multiple sclerosis and common cancers to hypertension and schizophrenia.
The project originally was planned to last 15 years, but technological advances have speeded work, and now a completely sequenced human genome is expected to be finished by 2003 or sooner. A working draft of the human genome is expected to be complete in the first half of next year.
The aim of the project is to identify all of the more than 100,000 genes in human DNA, determine the exact order of the 3 billion chemical base pairs, store this information in databases, develop tools to analyze the data, and deal with any ethical, legal and social issues that could arise.
While 16 institutions from Britain, France, Germany, Japan, China and the United States are participating in the project, most of the genome sequencing is being done at five locations: the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri; Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas; Joint Genome Institute in Walnut Creek, California; and the Sanger Centre in Cambridge, England.
The findings are updated regularly on the Internet at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/genome/seq/.