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Scientists Announce Completion of First Assembly of Human Genome

Aired June 26, 2000 - 11:10 a.m. ET


DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: We'll have some questions for the doctor in a moment. First, we want to go to the scientists that have actually worked on this project. They are at the White House now, and they are answering questions.

Let's go ahead and listen in.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... Clinton, Prime Minister Blair, congratulating all of the members of the scientific teams of the human genome partnership, the public effort involving the United States, and the United Kingdom, and several other countries, having reached an important milestone in the sequencing of the human genome; as well as Craig Venter, president of Celera and his team, who have completed their first assembly of the human genome.

So it is an extremely exciting day. It is a forward-looking time, because of the enormous opportunities for the use of this scientific information to benefit all peoples of the world. So I would now like to ask Francis Collins to make a brief statement, and then Dr. Craig Venter, and then we'll take your questions.


This is a happy day for science, and I think for the public, both here and around the world. I have the honor of serving as the project manager, I guess is the right word, of the International Human Sequencing Consortium, which has been laboring to try to develop methodologies and then apply them for sequencing the three billion letters of the human DNA code. We can now say it's more 3.15 billion letters because we have a better handle on it.

That involves investigators, not only in the United States, but also in the United Kingdom, in France, in Germany, in China, and in Japan. And that has been a particularly gratifying aspect of this, because this is after all, our shared inheritance. And it's nice that we're working on it together around the world.

What we are announcing today is that we have reached a milestone that we promised to get to just about now; that is, covering the genome in what we call a working draft of the human sequence. That is not to say that we have it all finished and zipped up and every last letter precisely identified. That will take a number of additional steps and probably the better part of the next couple years to achieve.

But if you are sitting somewhere in the genome right now, there's a very good chance you are in our database. And if you look to one side or the other of any particular letter in the DNA code, you will find that you're sitting on an uninterrupted stretch of sequence that runs about 200,000 letters in length. And most of the sequence is there. So for the scientist who is working, trying to unravel a mystery of some sort -- and many of these are mysteries about disease -- this database is now in a form that makes it possible to answer many of those questions very quickly.

Back in the 1980s, I had the experience of trying to track down the cystic fibrosis gene. It took us about 10 years of very hard work to finally succeed at that endeavor. And there were probably 100 investigators involved and millions of dollars were spent on this enterprise. I can tell you that with the database that's now available as of today, an average post-Doc working in a lab would be able to accomplish that probably in a matter of a couple of weeks.

So it is profoundly gratifying to see this come along in this fashion. Finally, I just would like to say how nice it is to share the podium today with Dr. Venter. I want to recognize his wonderful willingness to come forward in the way that has led to today with the plans here for a simultaneous announcement of these milestones. The work that his company has done is really quite remarkable. I think it's a wonderful example of the way in which the academic community, and the biotech community, and the pharmaceutical industry in this country and around the world are really laboring together here to try to achieve what we all hope for, which is an alleviation of suffering and a cure for disease.

Also, I would like to thank the other person standing up here, Ari Patrinos of the Department of Energy for the important role he's played in leading the Genome Project and the catalytic efforts that he has played in getting today to happen. So thank you very much.

I'll turn it to Craig.

CRAIG VENTER, PRESIDENT, CELERA GENOMICS: Thank you, Francis, for your very nice comments. In a few hours, or at 12:30, Francis and I will be making detailed announcements at a press conference across town where we will be describing much more detailed information about the scientific accomplishments of the two different programs.

Celera, 18 miles from here in Rockville, Maryland, started sequencing the genome in September, just nine months ago. We announced a while ago that we had finished the sequencing phase. And today we're announcing that we've actually now assembled all that data into the linear sequence of the human chromosomes. This is an exciting stage. It's far from the end stage, as Francis said.

In fact, annotating this, characterizing the genes, characterizing the information; while that's, in reality, going to take most of this century, we plan to make a very significant start on that between now and later this year, when Francis and I agree to have the two teams try to simultaneously publish the results of the different efforts. At that stage, they will really be able to be compared in detail. The scientists will be able to really go through the information in dramatic fashion.

Like Francis, I spent a decade looking for one gene. That gene cost hundreds of millions of dollars to actually find and sequence. And it was a combined effort of NIH funding and work funded by Merck. That same discovery today would take 15 seconds by scientists using the Celera database. And pharmaceutical companies, biotech companies, and university researchers are making those discoveries probably as we speak, unless they are still watching television.

I'm pleased that Francis worked with me, certainly with the help of Ari Patrinos, to have this event be the focus and shifting the focus to the importance of this work to all of us and to humanity. And if we're going to be the custodians of the genetic information, and be trusted to analyze it and interpret it appropriately, we felt it was important for us to rise above the squabbles that you've read about, to act more at the level appropriate with this situation. And I thank Francis for his effort in that regards. Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I should have introduced Ari Patrinos, who runs the Department of Energy's human sequencing research efforts. Department of Energy has been very important from the outset to the concept of the Human Genome Project.

Do you want to say a word, Craig?

Good, then we're ready. We're ready for your questions.

In the back?

QUESTION: Dr. Venter, can you tell us what the thought processes were that made you go -- and the timing of when you decided to make this joint announcement?

VENTER: Well, it's been something that's been under works for a very long period of time, but really became much more actively involved when Dr. Patrinos arranged a secret meeting between himself, Francis Collins, and myself that turned into a long series of meetings. And I think it's something that we all had hoped would happen. It took the individual efforts of all of us to really make it happen.

QUESTION: When was that?

VENTER: The first...

ARI PATRINOS, DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY: It started on May 7th, and was followed by three other meetings. The last one was just last week.

COLLINS: And all of those were in Ari's house, and he served beer and pizza, which was an important part of the good outcome here. Ari, I think, deserves a great deal of credit for being a catalyst. When I called him up in late April and said: Can we try this, he was quick to say: Hey yes, let's give it a shot, and put together that first discussion. And things went very well.

And thank you, Ari.

QUESTION: Where and when are you guys going to publish? And what are you going it do with the accompanying data?

VENTER: It hasn't been absolutely decided either where or when. We expect it to be later this year. We're still working on -- by assisting the state of data interpretation and writing of manuscripts in both camps -- and then we'll try to collectively decide on a time for a submission. There's several scientific journals that have been wooing us, let's say. And I don't think we've made an absolute final decision on where that will be.

COLLINS: There is a prodigious amount of work involved in doing the analysis of these 3.1 billion letters of the DNA code. And that is very vigorously under way right now in the public project by a team of investigators that have been meeting by conference call and a variety of other mechanisms. And we aim to try to write really good papers here, not just say: Oh, we did it.

But also: What did we find here? in the first path through the human genome, what can you learn about what genes are there? and maybe what's not there as well? So the intention is, to be sure, that these are papers that will stand the test of time and we look forward to the opportunity to do this simultaneously with what Celera is doing.

QUESTION: Where is that going to be deposited?

COLLINS: So in -- Craig should speak for Celera. In the public project, as you know, all of the sequenced data is deposited onto the Internet every 24 hours and the analysis sequence data will also be appearing very quickly on the Internet, even in advance of publication. But the papers, of course, themselves will stand on their own because of the additional higher-level analysis that they will include.

VENTER: Celera's data is available right now to the academic and pharmaceutical and biotech worlds, but it's through subscription at the moment. In the fall when we actually publish our scientific analysis of the genome, that data will be available to academic scientists via our Internet site

QUESTION: How is Celera going to make money on the public data?

VENTER: So the question is: How is Celera going to make money on the public data?

Hopefully it won't. Celera has independently sequenced the genome. We decided as a corporation that it was such a significant event, that when we were finished with sequencing the genetic code of our species, we would make that data freely available to scientists around the world. We've indicated that the effort to make a financial return for our investors would be from understanding that information.

We're right now helping some of the biggest and best pharmaceutical and biotech companies and academic institutions interpret the human genetic code, a key part of this is we will have the mouse genome sequence by the end of this year, and that will be very key for a layer on top of the human genetic code to, in fact, interpret it.

What our work previously has shown with close to 24 genomes that we've done both at TIGR and at Celera is that having one having one genetic code is important but it's not all that useful and it's only through comparative genomics, having both human and mouse, dog, chimpanzee, rat, other species, to layer on top of the human, will we only then be able to truly begin to interpret the genetic code.

COLLINS: Can I follow up on that, too. I want to completely agree with the conclusion, that the human sequence with comparisons to draw to it is going to be very difficult to understand, and in fact, the public project is also engaged in beginning the process of sequencing other complex genomes; including the rat, and a fish called the zebra fish, and the mouse, but a different strain than what Celera is doing.

And I think Craig and I would agree that that's a good thing that these are complementary efforts and that you learn a lot from whatever sequencing of this sort that you do.

I would also strongly want to point out that even with those sequencing efforts coming into fruition, we will need a lot of other tools to understand how the genome works, methods of studying, not just one gene at a time, but the whole genome in terms of its function and that's a major goal of the genome project in the coming years.

KAGAN: We've been listening to a news conference from the White House. These are both public and private scientists, Dr. Francis Collins, with the government efforts, and Craig Venter, with Celera Genomics.

The effort together to map the human genome, as we heard the scientists say, the task now is to figure out what is there and what is not there, and what to do with it in a responsible and ethical manner.

We'll continue to monitor the story, coverage throughout the day here on CNN. We'll take a break and IN THE MONEY will be back after this.



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