Book of Life or Signpost to a New Biology?
the human genome brings surprises and new challenges
no secret that the dynamic duo of genomic research--J. Craig Venter
of Celera Genomics and Francis Collins of the National Institutes
of Health--have had their share of disputes. But none of that rivalry
was in evidence when they met the press at AAAS this afternoon to
celebrate their publication, in separate magazines, of the human genome.
Venter joked that a truck carrying the new issue of Science--which
contains the Celera report of the genome--was hijacked, only to be
found in Sacramento, where the hijackers planned to burn them to ease
the power shortage thats plaguing California. Collins countered,
I thought thats what happened to Nature,
where his consortiums paper was published.
good-natured ribbing suggests the drama that has characterized this
highly competitive race has receded with the exhilaration of the results--at
least for now. Both teams won, and both men spoke enthusiastically
about completing the human genome sequence, and the prospects that
lay before them.
hailed the collaborative nature of the publicly funded NIH venture,
which relied on the efforts of more than a thousand scientists around
the world to generate its draft and analysis of the human genome.
The papers published by both the NIH and Celera teams, Collins said,
showed remarkably similar conclusions, representing a validation
of results of one group by the other.
this achievement the most exhilarating moment of his scientific
career, Collins invited the capacity crowd to his evening lecture
on the Top Ten Messages from the Genome, à la David Letterman.
Unlike Letterman, however, Collins gave away the punchline: collective
surprise at how few genes humans have; at how our genes are more complicated
than most researchers had imagined; how some genes come from bacteria,
crossing barriers researchers didnt expect could be transversed;
and how much of what is called junk DNA doesnt seem
to be junk after all.
they discovered, Collins said, is that what has become known as the
book of life is really three books: a history book, filled
with pages of the fossil record written in our DNA code; a parts manual
pointing to the genes and proteins that create a human being; and
a medical text that points to risk and disease, albeit, Collins conceded,
in a language that we dont entirely know how to read yet.
took issue with Collins characterization of the genome. I
dont view this as the book of life, he said. And
this is not the blueprint for humanity. This is a basic set of information
that codes for our proteins. You wont find the instructions
for building the heart or building the brain, Venter explained, because
this information comes in several different layers.
both men agreed their results should dissuade persistent advocates
of genetic determinism. Knowing a persons genetic code does
not tell you who a person is, Venter said, referring to suggestions
that human beings are the inescapable product of their genetic parts.
So many thought that there would be a gene in the genome for
each of our traits, he added, but its clearly not
the case. The simple amount of DNA in our genome reveals little
about the complex machinery involved in what it codes for and what
makes a human a human, Venter pointed out. Were not important
as a species because we have three billion letters--corn has three
both men bristle at the notion that were now entering the postgenomic
era. Thats one of my pet peeves, said Collins. Were
just starting the genomic era. Now that we have the tools, theres
no end to what we might learn about biology. From genome after
genome after genome, every one of those base pairs will tell us something.
the unveiling of the human genome--with its damning implications for
the one-gene-one-trait theory--to Galileos revelation that the
earth is not the center of the universe, Venter said sequencing the
human genome is just the beginning of greater breakthroughs to come.
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