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Franco-British team cracks the tuberculosis gene code

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A Franco-British team of scientists has cracked the genetic code of tuberculosis, an infectious lung disease that kills more people each year than malaria and AIDS combined.

The team has deciphered the entire 4,000-gene sequence, or genome, of the TB bacillus, which should speed the development of new drugs and vaccines against the chronic airborne ailment that has defied scientists' best efforts at eradication."I think it will be a landmark in the history of tuberculosis research," Dr. Stewart Cole, one of the researchers, said in a telephone interview.

"We've identified all the genes and predicted what quite a few of them are doing, so it opens up thousands and thousands of new areas for people to do research in."

It took the scientists from the Pasteur Institute in France and Britain's Sanger Centre more than two years to complete the joint project, financed by the Wellcome Trust and reported in the science journal Nature on Wednesday.

Tuberculosis is not the first disease to be decoded.

Scientists have already mapped out the genome for Lyme disease and other bacteria, but the TB bacillus, mycobacterium tuberculosis, is the most sophisticated sequencing achievement and one that could have far-reaching implications for public health.

"I personally think it is the most important one to date," Cole said, adding that sequencing the genome for malaria, another infectious killer, would have similar significance.

Douglas Young, a microbiologist at Imperial College School of Medi-cine in London, said the history of the disease, together with the clues to conquering it, were hidden in the genome.

"Thanks to Cole et al, we now have the sequence of every potential drug target and of every antigen we many wish to include in a vaccine," he said in a commentary in Nature.

One third of the world's population is infected with the TB bacillus. Three million people die of the disease each year. It is particularly dangerous for HIV sufferers because each disease speeds the progress of the other.