Congress remains upbeat on public genome efforts

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The chairman of a key congressional committee promised last week that funding for the Human Genome Project was not in jeopardy in the light of a recently announced private plan to sequence the entire human genome in only three years.

“I doubt very much that Congress will cut funding” for the project, said Ken Calvert (Republican, California), speaking to officials of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Department of Energy (DOE) during a hearing of his House subcommittee on energy and environment, which oversees DOE research.

Witnesses at the hearing generally viewed the joint venture of the Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR) in Rockville, Maryland, and Perkin-Elmer as complementary to the federal project, rather than likely to replace it (see Nature 393, 101 1998 & Nature 393 201; 1998).

Craig Venter, TIGR's president, tried to dispel notions of a race, saying his announcement “has led some to speculate that federal funding for the human genome is no longer needed. Nothing could be further from the truth.” He called for more money to be spent on government genome research.

Francis Collins and Aristides Patrinos, who head genome research at NIH and DOE, respectively, tried to show how the Human Genome Project differed from Venter's plan. “The genome project is much broader than just the human sequence,” said Collins.

The federal effort includes not just delivering raw sequence data, but also producing a high-quality database, distributing information to the scientific community, mapping genomes of other organisms, and studying the ethical, legal and social implications.

Collins said a five-year plan being developed for the federal project will use information from Venter's group (see Nature 393 399; 1998). But he admitted it will be difficult for researchers to use the private data until their quality is demonstrated, which may take two or three years.

“The federal effort is fully prepared to adjust its strategy,” Collins told the committee. But he added: “We should not drastically alter our strategy until we have more data.”

David Galas, who headed DOE's part of the project before becoming president of Chiroscience R & D in Bothell, Washington, asked for researchers to publish a “first draft” of the human genome “as quickly as possible, whether or not the [Venter] effort contributes⃛ to reaching this goal”.

Galas estimated that speeding up publication of a draft version by even a year would save the private sector about $2 billion in research costs.

The main dissent came from Maynard Olson, the University of Washington genetics researcher who chairs the NIH review committee for genome research. He predicted that there would be more than 100,000 major gaps in Venter's final assembled sequence.

But the committee members were clearly excited by the TIGR venture. Tim Roemer of Indiana, the senior Democrat on the panel, agreed it was important to be sceptical of promises that “appear too good to be true”. But he said that Venter's plan held out the “golden possibility of a private-public partnership that could result in a phenomenal return for science”.

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Reichhardt, T. Congress remains upbeat on public genome efforts. Nature 393, 722 (1998). https://doi.org/10.1038/31548

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