The U.S. Human Genome Project, launched in 1990 and funded bythe National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Department of Energy(DOE), formally entered its final stage Wednesday with the start ofan $18 million pilot project to begin sequencing all three billion basicunits that make up DNA.

The funding will support the pilot project for a year and will befollowed by three more years and $60 million to continue the large-scale sequencing effort. If completed, a complete human genomesequence is expected to cost at least $1.5 billion.

Francis Collins, director of the National Center for Human GenomeResearch (NCHGR), has estimated a full DNA sequence of thehuman genome could be complete by 2003, two years earlier thananticipated.

Researchers reached the first milestone when they completed agenetic linkage map with markers every 700 kilobase pairs. By nextyear the second goal, a physical map, will be finished with markersreduced to every 100 kilobase pairs.

Sequencing the genome will fill in all the remaining data, whichamounts to spelling out the order of the four DNA base units _adenine, guanine, cytosine and thymine _ on all 23 pairs ofchromosomes.

The sequence map will list the linear order of the bases withoutidentifying what the letters spell, or mean. However, the detailedmaps will help disease gene hunters complete their missions morequickly.

The NCHGR estimates it will take the six research centers two yearsto sequence about 3 percent of the three billion base pairs.

As the research centers produce the data it will be fed into public databases at the NIH's GenBank in Bethesda, Md., and the GenomeSequence DataBase, which is funded by the DOE in Santa Fe, N.M.It will also be available in data bases at the participating institutions.The U.S. data bases are linked globally with the DNA Data Base inJapan and the European Bioinformatics Institute, of Cambridge, U.K.

The NCHGR asked the U.S. researchers awarded grants not to seekpatents on the raw data unless "they have done additional biologicalexperiments that reveal convincing evidence for utility of thesequence." However, the scientists are not barred legally from tryingto patent the sequences with or without details about what theyrepresent.

The effort to sequence the human genome has been a worldwideendeavor led by the U.S., Europe and Japan. Overseeing the projectis the Human Genome Organization with regional headquarters inBethesda, London and Tokyo.

Collins has said the U.S. scientists will probably contribute about halfof the genome sequence.

The U.S. research centers, their grants for the pilot project are:

* Washington University, of St. Louis will receive $6.7 million andfocus on chromosomes 22 and X.

* Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, of Cambridge, Mass.,will receive $4.1 million and focus on chromosomes 9 and 17.

* The Institute for Genomic Research, of Rockville, Md., will receive$3.2 million and focus on chromosome 16.

* Stanford University, of Palo Alto, Calif., will receive $2.5 millionand focus on chromosomes 4 and 21.

* Baylor College of Medicine, of Houston, will receive $1.3 millionand focus on chromosome X.

* University of Washington, of Seattle will receive $1 million andfocus on chromosome 7.

Among the goals of the pilot project is refinement of the technologyneeded to accomplish the large-scale sequencing of the genome witha maximum accuracy level of one error per 10,000 base pairs. n

-- Charles Craig

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