Prompting the inevitable clever (and arguably sexist) headlines using the title of John Steinbeck's novel, scientists this week published the first publicly available draft of the mouse genome, which is certain to be helpful in comparing those "of mice and men."
The biotechnology industry now has begun to talk about whether the mouse genome, when set alongside the human, will guide scientists to the Promised Land in their search for disease cures.
We're still somewhat east of Eden - and these days, everyone involved in genomics is wary of overstating the near-term potential of the latest news for drug development.
"There will be no pill following this in the next few weeks, but much of what's done to validate targets is done in the mouse," said Mark Adams, vice president of bioinformatics for Applied Biosystems Group of Foster City, Calif., which is a unit of Applera Corp.
Celera Genomics Grou, also an Applera business, finished its draft of the mouse genome in April 2001, updating it the following September. Unlike the results from the publicly funded effort, which can be accessed by way of the Internet, Celera's data are not available to all. (See BioWorld Today, May 31, 2002.)
"Being able to compare [the human and mouse genomes] is pretty powerful," Adams said.
"The complement of genes is very nearly identical," he told BioWorld Today. "If there's a human gene, there's going to be a mouse gene in a predictable region in the mouse genome."
A paper in the Dec. 5, 2002, issue of Nature suggests that the genomes of mice and humans contain much more valuable genetic material than scientists previously suspected - although the two species parted evolutionary ways millions of years ago.
Exactly how helpful comparing the mouse and human genomes will be is "going to depend on the researcher, but for people doing mouse genetics, this is phenomenally useful," Adams said.
Scientists characterize the genomes' similarities in various ways, but almost half of the human genomic sequence can be found in mice, noted the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle, a non-profit group that took part in the effort. Sequence comparison between puffer fish and mammals, which has been done, is limited to regions coding for proteins. Those only comprise about three percent of the genome, the rest is "junk" or "selfish" DNA sequences that are nonfunctional.
Sequencing the mouse for public availability cost about $130 million, and the work was funded largely by the National Human Genome Research Institute in Bethesda, Md., and the Wellcome Trust in London.
The research team behind the Nature paper included groups from the Whitehead Institute at MIT; Washington University in St. Louis; the University of California at Santa Cruz; Penn State University; the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, in Cambridge, UK; and the European Bioinformatics Institute, also in Cambridge, UK. More than two dozen institutions in six countries took part.
"The other thing that we've pointed out, and this paper also shows, is that there's a lot of other stuff going on that's probably functional that we hadn't had as great an appreciation for," Adams told BioWorld Today, noting the public-relations "bonanza" surrounding the public mouse genome.
"The public sequence has been available in some form for six months," he said.
Lori Murray, manager of corporate communications for Applied Biosystems, said the subscriber-paid database is "a lot different from what the public [one] is offering. Our database offers four different mouse strains and one sub-strain, with eightfold sequence coverage."
Comparative genomics tools are also available, as well as a database of single nucleotide polymorphisms.
"We're continuing to update it all the time," she said.