Why was there a race to sequence the human genome? 

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

This part 8 in our series of stories about the Human Genome Project. Read part 7, looking at how the Human Genome Project set the stage for open access science that’s freely accessible to all, here or go back to the start of the series here.

Key terms

Genome

The complete set of genetic instructions required to build and maintain an organism.

DNA sequencing

The process of determining the order of bases in a section of DNA.

Patent

A type of intellectual property that gives the holder sole rights to make or use a product or idea.

In 1998, Craig Venter announced that he had formed a new private company – later known as Celera Genomics – to take on the task of sequencing the human genome.

Unsurprisingly, this sparked a rivalry with the team running the Human Genome Project – and a race to sequence the human genome first.

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

Enter Celera Genomics

 

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 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. He felt that giving the DNA sequence away for free was not appropriate and that patenting the genes would ensure some control remained over who could gain access to the information.

This move completely opposed the philosophy of the Human Genome Project’s 1996 Bermuda Agreement – which ensured that all information from the project could be made freely available to all within 24 hours.

 

The race begins

 

Coincidentally, when the news of Celera Genomics broke, the Wellcome Trust was considering an application from the Sanger Centre to accelerate genome sequencing.

Within days of Celera Genomics’ launch, 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 the leaders of the Human Genome Project came under pressure from the White House to settle their differences with Celera Genomics. With a presidential election in the offing, the political momentum in favour of some kind of happy ending became irresistible.

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

Reaching a conclusion – both sides win

 

The result was the joint announcement on 26 June 2000 that both sides had completed their own working draft of the human genome sequence. Soon after, US President Bill Clinton and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair issued a joint statement endorsing the public release of genomic data. In 2001, both the Human Genome Project and Celera Genomics published their draft human genome sequences.

The race was over: both sides had won.

But despite the Human Genome Project and Celera Genomics finishing their drafts around the same time, the race wasn’t without its controversy. Critics of Celera Genomics argued that they must have used the Human Genome Project’s publicly available data to sequence the human genome in just three years – which wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.

Some suggest that Celera Genomics’ entry into the race accelerated the progress, pushing the Human Genome Project to complete their work two years ahead of schedule. Others disagree, thinking that the Human Genome Project always had the drive and dedication needed to finish ahead of schedule and under budget.

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 – two years ahead of its original schedule. We’ll explore this in part 10 of this series.

Explore the next article in our Human Genome Project series