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Why was there a race to sequence the human genome?

The entry of Celera Genomics into the human genome sequencing arena in 1998 galvanised the public effort, leading to a race to sequence the human genome.

In 1998, Craig Venter, founder of the Institute for Genomic Research in Maryland, USA, announced that he had formed a new private company (later to become Celera Genomics) to take on the task of sequencing the human genome. This, unsurprisingly, sparked off a rivalry with the team running the Human Genome Project and a race to be the first to sequence the human genome.

Craig Venter aimed to sequence and assemble the entire human genome by 2001, and only make the information available to paying customers.

Craig felt that the Human Genome Project was taking too long, proving too costly and that it was getting bogged down by non-essential discussions, such as who was going to take credit for it. By forming his own human genome sequencing team, he wanted to get the sequencing done as quickly as possible, using faster, but perhaps less accurate methods, to accelerate the search for disease cures.  Craig Venter aimed to sequence and assemble the entire human genome by 2001, and only make the information available to paying customers. He also planned to file for preliminary patents on over 6,000 genes and full patents on a few hundred genes before releasing their sequence. Craig Venter felt that giving the DNA sequence away for free was not appropriate and that by patenting these genes he was ensuring that some control remained over who could gain access to the information.

This move completely opposed the philosophy of the Human Genome Project’s Bermuda Agreement. The agreement, which was laid down in 1996, was made to ensure that all information from the project could be made freely available to all within 24 hours.

Coincidentally however, the Wellcome Trust was considering an application from the Sanger Centre to accelerate genome sequencing when the news of Celera Genomics broke. Within days of the launch of Craig Venter's company, the Trust announced that it was increasing its funding to the Sanger Centre to accelerate the progress of their contribution to the human genome sequence, raising its target from one-sixth to one-third of the entire human genome. The race was on!

The conflict between public and private reached a head in 2000 when they came under pressure from the White House to settle their differences.

The conflict between public and private reached a head in 2000 when the leaders of the Human Genome Project came under pressure from the White House to settle their differences with Craig Venter.  But, with a presidential election in the offing, the political momentum in favour of some kind of happy ending became irresistible.

The result was the joint announcement on 26 June 2000 that both sides had completed their own working draft of the human genome sequence. US President Bill Clinton and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair both gave their seal of approval by appearing at press conferences on each side of the Atlantic. Then, finally, it was declared that the race was over, that both sides had won, and the hostilities were resolved resulting in a much more productive working collaboration between the two organisations. Soon after, Clinton and Blair issued a joint statement endorsing the public release of genomic data.

In 2000, both Celera and the Human Genome Project were able to publish their draft human genome sequences. However, in January 2002, Venter stepped down as president of Celera Genomics as they moved more towards the pharmaceutical domain.  Meanwhile, the Human Genome Project continued its work, resulting in the release of their gold standard sequence in 2003.

Some people think that it was because of the competition from Celera Genomics that the public effort to sequence the human genome accelerated. However, many disagree, thinking the Human Genome Project always had the drive and dedication needed to finish ahead of schedule and under budget.

This page was last updated on 2016-06-13