HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. _ Surfing the net for life _ the threebasic forms, that is, of archaea, prokaryotes and eukaryotes _ isgetting more exciting for those who understand the language ofgenomics.

On world wide web sites of universities, research institutes, publicdata base libraries and for-profit companies a browser can comparethe genetic data for molecular similarities comprising life on thisplanet from the archaea (the most ancient earthly creatures, whichlive in extreme environments of high temperature and pressure) toprokaryotes (which are bacteria) to eukaryotes (which are plants andanimals including yeast and humans).

Over the past year, worldwide collaborative gene sequencing projectshave generated the genetic code for whole genomes of those three lifeforms _ allowing researchers to look back in time for anunderstanding of the development of human biology.

"This era is comparable to 42 years ago when James Watson andFrancis Crick discovered the structure of DNA," said Craig Venter,director of The Institute of Genomic Research (TIGR), in Rockville,Md., and host of his organization's Eighth International GenomeSequencing and Analysis Conference in Hilton Head Island, S.C.

With completion this spring of the whole genome sequence for yeast,the first eukaryotic organism so characterized, scientists have acomplete basic set of genes that defines higher forms of life. The firstarchaea genome also was fully sequenced this year and severalmicrobial genomes are complete.

A full human genome sequence, a challenge undertaken by the globalHuman Genome Project, is expected in less than 10 years. Thousandsof genes already have been identified and their functions are beingstudied through comparisons to corresponding known genes of otherorganisms.

But the ability to compare genes across the three domains of lifewithin the context of whole genomes, Venter said, "changes thefundamental approach to biology. We've isolated individual genesand individual proteins. Now that we have whole genomes we canlook at how individual genes are integrated and study the structure ofevolution."

To keep pace with these scientific advances Venter changed the nameof the Genome Science & Technology journal he launched last yearto Microbial & Comparative Genomics.

Among the stars of TIGR's four-day conference, which ends today,were the yeast genome and its sequencers, including Andre Goffeau,of the Universite Catholique de Louvain, in Belgium. Goffeau wasthe leader of the six-year, $40 million international effort to identifythe 6,000 genes of Saccharomyces cerevisiae.

The sequence for the yeast genome was published in April. (SeeBioWorld Today, April 25, 1996, p. 1.)

Goffeau said he has begun using the data to better understand humanmultidrug resistance genes, whose functions include enabling cancercells to rid themselves of toxic drugs.

Before generation of the complete set of yeast genes, Goffeau wasaware of three proteins with similarities to human multidrugresistance mechanisms.

Since completion of the yeast project, he has found more than 50proteins involved in the process for that organism.

"Multidrug resistance in humans," he noted, "is not as simple as inyeast."

To date as many as 30 human disease-related genes have been foundto be homologous to yeast genes. With the full genome assembled,the functions of those human genes can be analyzed within acomplete biological system.

"The yeast cell now is a bound world," Goffeau said, "where everyelement, metabolite, enzyme and nucleotide is known.

"This humble, but faithful servant of mankind," he observed, "notonly is a producer of goods, such as beer and wine, but also is analmost perfect object to study and unravel the mechanisms of life."

Much discussion at the TIGR conference focused on translating rawgene sequence data into an understanding of gene and proteinfunction.

To tackle that task, Venter said, TIGR has moved into genomeengineering, in which assumptions made for the biology of a simpleorganism, such as Mycoplasma genitalium, can be tested by creatinga new organism.

The Hilton Head conference attracted about 900 scientists fromacademic institutions, government agencies and genomics companies,making the meeting the largest of the seven previous gatherings.

The not-for-profit TIGR's main financial backer is Human GenomeSciences Inc., of Rockville, Md., which also is the researchbeneficiary of the institute. n

-- Charles Craig

(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.