By Peter Winter

BioWorld International Correspondent

VANCOUVER, British Columbia - Drawing from a quotation from Winston Churchill, Francis Collins, Director of the NIH's National Human Genome Research Institute, called the nearing of the completion of the sequencing component of the Human Genome Project (HGP) the "end of the beginning."

Collins was speaking at the first plenary session of the Human Genome Meeting (HGM 2000) being held here through Wednesday. More than 750 of the world's leading genetic researchers are gathered to review the latest scientific advances on the mapping, sequencing and basic understanding of the human genome.

It certainly is an "historic time" for genomics research as the HGP will shortly reach its goal of having 90 percent of the human genome sequencing data published on the Internet. This effort, from 16 major centers around the world, recorded an output of 475 million base pairs in March, which represents approximately 1,000 base pairs per second. This volume of information being added to the human genome database means that there will be a working draft of the human genome sequence by May or June.

Collins said this milestone, while significant, is not the end of the story. More has been made of the "race" between the public project and the private initiative to complete the sequence. Having the sequence in a database is extremely useful for everyone involved in genetics research. The challenge, however, is to try and interpret the data, and this will require the development of sophisticated software.

The framework of genomics research has changed in the last six months, and Collins said that there will be no "finish line" for the next couple of years because there are still many gaps in the database and a great deal of work has to be undertaken before the data are at a level in which it can be stated the sequencing work is completed. He cited that the published sequence data for chromosome 22 is the standard and there is much to be done before other chromosomes are sequenced to that standard.

Collins speculated that chromosome 21 probably will be the next to be "completed," followed by chromosome 20.

Michael Hayden, chair of the HGM 2000 organizing committee, said that the event is highlighting how human genome research is enhancing fundamental discovery and the identification of disease genes. The scientific agenda encompasses three plenary sessions, six symposia and 15 workshops. HGM 2000 also provides a forum for scientists and the public to address the scientific, medical, ethical, legal, social and commercial issues raised by the handling and application of genome knowledge. The meeting is being held under the auspices of the Human Genome Organization (HUGO), whose goal is to promote the scientific study of the human genome and encourage the flow of information unconstrained by individual, industrial or national interests.