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The Genome Cooperation Outlook

27 June 2000 7:00 pm
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Yesterday's White House ceremony announcing the near completion of the human genome was more than a celebration of "an epic-making triumph of science and reason," as President Clinton called it. It was also designed to heal a split in the research community. The ceremony brought together leaders of the rival public and private groups in a kind of truce, cooling off a competition that had grown acrimonious in recent months. But how did the truce happen, and what sort of relationship will the two groups have in the future?

The display of harmony came about because Ari Patrinos, chief of genome research at the Department of Energy, intervened. Upset about how the rivalry might detract from the scientific achievement, Patrinos invited Francis Collins, director of the U.S. National Human Genome Research Institute, and J. Craig Venter, president of Celera Genomics of Rockville, Maryland, to a "secret meeting" at his house near Washington, D.C. "I've known both of these guys for a long time--as scientists and as friends," Patrinos says. They met for the first time on Sunday, 7 May, but didn't make much progress. They continued talks over beer and pizza at several meetings, finally agreeing on 21 June on the detailed agenda of a joint press conference.

It's not clear how substantive the cooperation between Celera and the public consortium will be. Collins, for one, said the current truce amounted to "coordination, not collaboration." For now, the public and private teams are planning to produce independent scientific papers on the sequence data and, after that, to annotate the data independently. Collins explains that he doesn't expect Celera to share such information publicly because to do so would require giving away proprietary information.

But the public consortium and Celera are expecting to hold a joint conference next year to share information on their different methods of sequencing the genome. Eric Lander, director of the Whitehead Institute MIT Center for Genome Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, called this an "exciting" prospect, because the approaches were "complementary," producing "two different looks" at the genome.