By Lisa Seachrist

Washington Editor

WASHINGTON ¿ The National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), a part of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., has awarded $81.6 million to three institutions in an effort to accelerate the sequencing of the human genome and create a ¿working draft¿ by spring 2000.

An international consortium of research organizations will guide the endeavor, which was announced as a result of the successful completion of the pilot phase of the sequencing of the human genome. That success has launched the full-scale effort to sequence all 3 billion bases of DNA found in the human genome, and triggered the plan to create a working draft within a year or year and a half.

¿The pilot project went so well, getting 10 percent of the genome sequenced because of the coordinated international effort,¿ said Sharon Durham, media spokeswoman for NHGRI. ¿It seems as if [the project] is really going to ramp up.¿

The international consortium attempting to sequence the entire human genome by 2003 is comprised of three laboratories that participated in the pilot project and are funded by NHGRI, the Joint Genome Institute of the U.S. Department of Energy, and the Sanger Centre, supported in the United Kingdom by the Wellcome Trust.

The Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Mass., Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and Baylor College of Medicine in Houston will lead the NHGRI¿s efforts to create the sequence and split the $81.6 million. NHGRI is expected to add three or four more laboratories to the effort in June or July.

The Whitehead Institute and Washington University took the bulk of the funding, receiving $35 million and $33.2 million, respectively, with Baylor getting $13.4 million. The labs will be receiving NHGRI funds in varying amounts over the next five years.

¿The pilot project really created the process that we will use to sequence the genome,¿ said Eric Lander, director of the Whitehead/MIT Center for Genome Research. ¿There really weren¿t methods for sequencing the mammalian genome before then.¿

Lander noted that the bulk of the sequencing efforts use robotics to perform the biochemistry needed to sequence the DNA molecules. The automation, he said, has really allowed researchers to pick up the pace.

¿The most exciting thing about the pilot project was that we managed to achieve such a high level of accuracy,¿ Lander said. ¿We not only achieved the accuracy rate of no more than one error in 10,000 bases, we surpassed it with no more than one error in 100,000 bases. A high-quality, accurate sequence will be the key to laying the foundation for biomedical research for the next century.¿

Lander noted that completing the sequence of the human genome, whether through the international effort or via a private effort such as Craig Venter¿s work with Celera Inc., of Rockville, Md., will be only the starting point for biomedical research.

¿We are just at developing the infrastructure for biomedical research with this long-term mission to produce a highly accurate sequence,¿ Lander said. ¿What¿s important for biotechnology companies is that it will allow them to focus on developing the genomic information that will lead to new advances.¿

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