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Dispute over who does it better mars genome effort

SHARE Dispute over who does it better mars genome effort

WASHINGTON — It almost worked, an effort to present a picture of genial unity between scientists of the Human Genome Project and Celera Genomics, the company making a highly public bid to decode the human genetic sequence using controversial new technology.

But in the days leading up to Monday's announcement that both teams have begun to decode that mind-numbingly long sequence of A's, T's, C's and G's that make up the human genetic code, it has become clear that the emotions are closer to acrimony and downright dislike.

"In contrast to what was announced in June, Celera's assembly did not work at all. It's buzzing through the scientific community," Eric Lander, head of the genomics lab at the Whitehead Institute at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in a telephone interview.

Craig Venter, chief scientific officer at Celera, denies this. "There are clearly some people in the public effort who wish we didn't exist," he said.

Venter generated enormous controversy in 1998 when he joined start-up Celera with a mind to using his controversial method of whole-genome shotgun sequencing.

In contrast to the then-accepted method of painstakingly mapping each chromosome base pair by base pair, Venter wanted to blast the whole thing into tiny pieces and use computers to reassemble it by overlapping the obvious repetitions.


He boasted he would finish the human genome by 2001, considerably ahead of the international Human Genome Project, which started in the mid-1980s and promised little until 2005.

Then Venter, using giant rooms full of powerful computers and banks of automated sequencers, beat his own estimate, virtually finishing the fruit fly genome—with help from Human Genome Project scientists—in September 1999.

Nine months later, last June, the two sides said they had independently finished rough drafts of the human genome. Dr. Francis Collins, head of the National Human Genome Research Institute that is spearheading the public effort, admitted Venter's team had given his a good, strong nudge and praised his work.

It took considerable diplomacy, reaching up even to the White House, to get the two sides to agree to a joint announcement, but in the end they did and it seemed that perhaps talk of races and competition were over.

And Monday's announcements, made together but published separately in the rival journals Science and Nature, would have seemed to be more of the same.

But large differences remain. For instance, the public scientists have been throwing their work regularly onto the Internet, following the scientific traditions of collegiality, sharing, and helping the other guy replicate work.

Venter, funded by shareholder money, wanted to keep some information back for paying subscribers, although he said this would not be the raw data but Celera's analysis of the data.

Public scientists have resented this although Science, which published Celera's findings Monday, came up with a compromise—it will keep a copy of the genome sequence, and anyone who promises not to make a profit off the information can have the raw material.

Anyone who does intend to profit must license the material from Celera.

But beyond this, some of the scientists on the public effort said it was clear that Venter's material was not much use on its own anyway.


"It was a grand experiment that Craig tried, but in the end it was a great failure," Lander said. "I am very proud of the fact that there is a public map and sequence available and they have been able to use that to assemble the sequence."

The public researchers allege that Venter's team cribbed off their regularly published work to finish his.

"The surprising thing is Celera obviously have more data as they've got all of ours and they've got theirs, but they haven't been able to put it together," Tim Hubbard of the Sanger Centre Wellcome Trust Genome Campus in Cambridge, Britain, said in a telephone interview.

"It's not any better, which is quite amazing."

Hubbard and others allege that Celera used the public assembly as a template.

"They were left with tossed genome salad," said one researcher on the public effort who asked not to be named. "Celera was utterly, abjectly unable to assemble the genome."

Some outsiders concurred.

"I think it's clear that he drew heavily upon information that was in the public domain," said Dr. William Haseltine, head of Human Genome Sciences Inc., a company which uses different methods to hunt through the genome for patentable genes that can be turned into drugs.

"I can't tell you how much of it," added Haseltine, a former partner of Venter's who also had a public falling-out with him.

Celera scientists denied the allegations, briefing journalists at length on what they found and how they found it. Venter says his team got its results without stealing from the public effort. "If Eric would like to see that ... all the raw reads are on our subscription site," he said.

Asked why Lander, whose team spearheaded much of the public work, could not see such information freely, Venter answered tartly, "Some people have been more cooperative than others."

Venter praised the work done by the publicly funded scientists, who raced in labs from California to Berlin to Taipei to get a rough draft of the code. "We think the public effort has been remarkably good," he told the briefing.

And Science defended Celera's data, saying it believed the work was solid and declined to be drawn into the debate.

"We decided to take the high road," Donald Kennedy, editor-in-chief of Science, said in an interview. He said Celera did not owe it to critics to "turn over its notebooks" to prove its work was original.