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TEENS GET KICKS FROM MAPPING GENES

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Maybe other teenagers like to hang out at the mall after school. Not Yu-Fong Hong and Li Ho.

They've been busy mapping cancer-related genes, becoming two of the youngest researchers in a global effort to crack humanity's genetic code."It's a small step, but it's very significant," says their proud teacher, biologist Bill Pence.

What Hong, 17, and Ho, 16, did was map three cancer-related genes to specific chromosomes, groundwork that could help other scientists looking for the basis of a particular cancer.

They are among the youngest ever to work on the Human Genome Project, an international effort to unravel the genetic secrets that make up human life.

"I'm very pleased that the Human Genome Project has been broadened to the point where high school students can participate in it," said William Haseltine, head of Human Genome Sciences Inc., a Maryland-based private company working on genetic research.

Scientists said the scope of the project made it hard to say if they were in fact the youngest.

Hong and Ho are juniors at California High School in San Ramon, about 30 miles east of San Francisco.

Hong's family moved to California from Taiwan six years ago. Ho was born in California.

Their teacher learned mapping techniques while working summers at nearby Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Pence persuaded a local company to donate a thermocycler, the device used to copy strands of DNA. Livermore senior biomedical scientist Greg Lennon agreed to oversee the project.

Then came the hard part.

Ho and Hong logged 80 hours in the lab, checking and rechecking methods and results.

Finally, the day came when they looked at a copied sample, trapped in a slice of clear gel, under ultraviolet light. There, they feasted their eyes on the first step to success, bits of DNA glowing salmon pink.

"They were dancing around the room," Pence recalls.