By Lisa Seachrist

Washington Editor

WASHINGTON — Gene-hunter Craig Venter, director of The Institute For Genomic Research (TIGR), shocked the genome sequencing establishment when he disclosed TIGR, with the help of Perkin-Elmer Corp., intends not only to sequence the entire human genome in three years, but to do it for significantly less money than the federally sponsored effort, which began in the mid-80's.

It didn't take long for Venter's claims of a faster, cheaper, privately funded genome project to reach the ear of Congress, raising questions as to whether a federally funded program set to deliver results in 2005 should continue to receive money.

"We have all certainly heard the mantra: faster, cheaper, better," said Rep. Tim Roemer (D-Ind.). "Now, we have the golden possibility of a public-private partnership that may lead to phenomenal results."

With the Human Genome Project having cost $1.9 billion to date, the House Energy and Environment Subcommittee last week explored the possibility the project has become redundant.

Genome Project leaders Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Research Institute, and Aristides Patrinos, associate director at the Department of Energy, joined Venter in assuring the legislators that not only is federal involvement still worthwhile, but it is absolutely vital to the ultimate utility of the final genome sequence.

"The success of our effort moves forward all the issues of the Human Genome Project," Venter said. "Having the sequence in hand is not the end of anything except perhaps the end of ignorance. The sequence information provides a starting point form which the real research into the thousands of diseases that have a genetic basis can begin."

Project Encompasses More Than 'Simply Sequencing'

Collins and Patrinos concurred, pointing out that not only will scientists need to determine how the sequences of DNA ultimately direct the biology of being human, but bioethicists and policy makers will need to establish strategies for handling the social, legal and ethical implications of the information.

"The Human Genome Project is following a complex and carefully planned agenda," Collins said. "The genome project is much broader than just simply sequencing the human genome."

Nevertheless, Collins admitted Venter's venture will alter the ways in which the Human Genome Project moves forward. He said a revised research plan will be published this fall and he noted that Rockville, Md.-based TIGR and Perkin-Elmer, of Norwalk, Conn., have discussed a collaborative approach.

"This is not a race," Collins said. "We believe we have complementary strategies. We welcome this development to get us there sooner."

However, not all scientists are convinced Venter's approach will be successful.

Maynard Olson, professor of medicine at the University of Washington, in Seattle, is an advisor to the federally sponsored effort. He questioned whether Venter's plan — blasting the human genome into tens of thousands of pieces that will be sequenced and then reassembled — will provide a thorough, coherent sequence.

"I predict the proposed strategy will encounter catastrophic failure at the stage where the sequences must be assembled," Olson said. "I predict there will be over 100,000 serious gaps in the assembled sequence. The project is heavily backloaded so the problem will only be addressable relatively late in the project."

Olson said the data TIGR/Perkin-Elmer produce likely will have utility, but argued that a low-quality sequence is no substitute for the high-quality data produced by the Human Genome Project.

In addition, Olson noted that to date, Venter has only the plan to sequence the human genome — he hasn't tested the approach.

Advisor Cautions Against 'Science By Press Release'

"What we have at the moment is neither new technology nor even new scientific activity: what we have is a press release," Olson said. "Science by press release, or even worse, science policy by press release is not a path the U.S. Congress wants to walk down."

Subcommittee Chairman Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) observed the federally sponsored effort would provide sequence data to the scientific community at large and questioned whether the results of the private effort would be so altruistic.

"Our plan is to make the sequence available," Venter said. "By doing that, we render the sequence of the human genome unpatentable by anyone."

Venter did, however, note the private entity may patent several complementary DNAs that appear to be useful for biomedical research. Venter said the company expects to target between 100 and 300 genes from the thousands of potential targets. In order to be patentable, he said, the company will have to know the genes' biological functions. *