By Lisa Seachrist

Washington Editor

WASHINGTON — Genetic sequencing trailblazer Craig Venter and The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR) have joined forces with laboratory instrument specialist Perkin-Elmer Corp. to form a new genomics company that aims to overwhelm federal efforts and obtain the sequence of the human genome in three years, at a cost of $200 million dollars.

Should the new company succeed, it will easily surpass the government's 15-year, $3 billion effort to complete the sequence of the human genome by the year 2005. That project is now at the halfway point with only 3 percent of the genes sequenced.

"This effort will speed along the functional studies that scientists are eager to do," said Michael Hunkapiller, senior vice president of Norwalk, Conn.-based Perkin-Elmer and president of its Applied Biosystems Division. "It is one thing to have the blueprint; it is quite another to see how the body builds something out of it."

Still unnamed, the new company will be located in Rockville, Md., near TIGR, and Venter will serve as president of the new company while his wife, Claire Fraser, will assume Venter's current position as president of TIGR. Perkin-Elmer's president, chairman and CEO, Tony White, will serve as the new firm's chairman. Perkin-Elmer will own approximately 80 percent of the company, with Venter and other employees of the company owning the balance.

The collaborators hope that the company becomes the definitive source of genomic and associated medical information. In addition to a database business, the company will maintain a contract assay service that examines genetic variability. The company will also maintain a small intellectual property business by selecting some genes that haven't been previously characterized and filing for patent protection.

"Shotgun" sequencing will chop each of the 24 human chromosomes into 60 million overlapping 500-base-pair fragments of DNA. Those fragments will be sequenced and reassembled by computer to yield the sequence of each chromosome and ultimately of the human genome.

Perkin-Elmer Analyzer The Method's Cornerstone

A new Perkin-Elmer ultra-high-throughput analyzer which is set to be on the market in 1999, will be the cornerstone of the method. The new venture will employ 230 of the machines, which will churn out 100,000 base pairs of DNA per day.

Hunkapiller admits that the task will be immense. However, he also notes that the company has several methods to manage the information, making success likely.

There are risks to the approach. William Haseltine, CEO of Rockville, Md.-based Human Genome Sciences (HGS), a former partner of TIGR, notes that the researchers won't know if they are successful until the computational work is finished, because the sequenced fragments won't have any context until all of them are sequenced and placed in order.

"It is a bold and brave attempt," Haseltine said. "It will be extremely challenging. However, [Venter] has a track record for innovation."

No matter how innovative the method, Haseltine questions how profitable the endeavor may be. He estimates that HGS has identified the sequences of as many as 95 percent of all human genes. And the company has the full coding region of 70 percent of those genes.

"The bloom is already off the rose for database companies," Haseltine said. "Whatever they find, the chances we already have it are great."

Nevertheless, Haseltine considers the endeavor an important one because the vast sequences of DNA that lie between the useful genes in our chromosomes carry the history of human evolution. He likens the project to the Carnegie Endowment's funding of astronomical research.

"This is a great scientific undertaking," Haseltine said. "It is going to be fascinating to know about the dark matter of our genome. We know that approximately 2 percent by mass of all of our DNA are the remnants of ancient invasions of our ancestors' DNA by retroviruses."

The agreement is subject to final documentation and the approval of the boards of Perkin-Elmer and TIGR. *