Published online 3 June 2003 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news030602-3


Human gene number wager won

Geneticists draw sweepstake despite uncertainty over final tally

Recognizing genes has proved tougher than expected.Recognizing genes has proved tougher than expected.© Corbis

One lucky number - 25,947 - has scooped a sweepstake for the number of human genes, dubbed GeneSweep.

The winner was announced at last week's Homo Sapiens genetics meeting at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, New York. The gene champ, Lee Rowen, who directs a sequencing project at the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle, Washington - beat 460 other hopefuls to take home part of the cash pot.

Rowen's wager at 25,947 is closest to the current reckoning in a genetic database called Ensembl, of 24,847. Like all good gamblers, her number was "a stab"; one runner-up picked 27,462 because the 27 April, 1962 was his birthday.

But researchers admitted that the final gene tally remains anyone's guess. They were only forced to name a winner because the rules of the wager, drunkenly set up one evening at the same meeting in 2000, stated that it would be called this year.

Recognizing genes - regions of DNA that code for proteins - has proved tougher than expected. One reason is that predictor programs, which trawl through DNA for landmark sequences characteristic of a gene, are notoriously unreliable.

Lines of back-up evidence are also fallible. For example, a putative human gene is considered more likely to be real if it matches one in gene databases from mouse, fruitfly or other organisms. An unknown number of human genes have no obvious match.

Many scientists think the estimated gene tally will eventually rise again, perhaps back above 30,000.

For more on this story see the news section of the journal Nature on 5 June