Anglo-American research on the human genome

Human Genome Project history 9: The first draft, June 2000

28/2/01. By Georgina Ferry

After 1998, a stunning acceleration in sequence production by the main centres in the Human Genome Project saw them go from 6 per cent to 90 per cent of the genome in under two years. This sequence, the first draft, was announced on 26 June 2000.

Most of the work was carried out by just three centres - the Genome Sequencing Center at St Louis, the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Sanger Centre (which was responsible for a third of the total) - but many other labs around the world made important contributions.

Having a major sequencing centre in the UK prevented the project from being an almost entirely American affair. "It's been of the highest possible importance," says Francis Collins. "There were some members of Congress who did not see why, if the information was to be given away, the USA should foot a disproportionate share of the bill. The very strong presence of the Sanger Centre added to the legitimacy of what the US centres were doing."

The entry of Celera into the field also had a positive effect on the publicly funded effort, adds Dr Collins, in that it "stirred the pot" and encouraged more creative and energetic thinking. Less positive was the perception projected by the media that the two sides were in an unfriendly race.

"For a while the importance of the consequences got lost," he says. Part of the resentment towards Dr Venter stemmed from his reluctance to acknowledge that his own rapid progress partly depended on the Human Genome Project data. "The shotgun approach would be much more difficult, if not impossible, without the framework of the map," says David Bentley, Head of Genetics at the Sanger Centre.

Early in 2000, Francis Collins and the other leaders of the public project came under pressure from the White House to settle their differences with Dr Venter. It had become a party political issue, with Republicans accusing Democrats of not supporting the US biotechnology industry. Previous efforts to join forces had foundered over Dr Venter's refusal to release his data unconditionally.

But with a presidential election in the offing, the political momentum in favour of some kind of happy ending became irresistible. The result was the joint announcement on 26 June 2000 that both sides had completed a working draft, with both Bill Clinton and Tony Blair giving their seal of approval by appearing at press conferences on each side of the Atlantic.

"The joint announcement was probably more grandiose than the situation warranted," says Bob Waterston, "but it ended concerns that one side or the other would be pre-empted, and it took the pressure off in terms of press coverage."

While the timing of the announcement may have been dictated more by political than by scientific criteria, there is no denying the importance of what has been achieved, and what will be achieved. The next few years will be devoted to filling gaps in the draft sequence and improving the overall accuracy. "We will have a best reference sequence by 2003," says David Bentley, "and will have identified all the genes by 2004. That will give us access to all the genetic information about ourselves - and it's unchanging, and unequivocal."

Image credit: Bill Sanderson

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