CRAIG VENTER'S announcement last week that he had sequenced the entire genetic recipe of a human being was billed as a milestone. But by the weekend, it was being ridiculed as overblown "hype" by his rivals in the official human genome project.
Mr Venter, president and chief executive officer of Celera Genomics, saw his company's share price soar after he told the US Congress that he had finished reading the three billion "letters" that make up the complete DNA code of man.
"This is the key milestone," said Mr Venter, a Vietnam veteran turned medical maverick. "Now that we have completed the sequencing of one human being's genome, we will turn our computational power to the task of ordering the human genome."
What Mr Venter meant by his elliptical statement is that, although his computerised "gene machines" have sequenced all the three billion letters - technically known as base pairs - he cannot yet tell you what they spell.
Tim Hubbard, head of human genome sequencing at the Sanger Centre in Cambridge, part of the international operation racing against Celera, suspected that Mr Venter's "milestone" announcement was aimed more at his shareholders than scientists.
"It doesn't mean anything. He's got fragments of DNA sequences but he has not yet assembled them into anything meaningful," Dr Hubbard said. "It's like taking a copy of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and shredding it. You might be able to read fragments of it but it won't mean very much."
The rivalry between Celera, a private organisation set up to make a profit out of decoding the 100,000 or so genes on the 23 pairs of human chromosomes, and the publicly funded Human Genome Project centres on who will control the rights to exploit the huge database of genetic information that could transform medicine in the 21st century. Knowing the sequence of DNA letters in each of the genes will open the way to new tests for genetic disorders, not just for the obvious ones such as cystic fibrosis, but the more complicated inherited predispositions behind the common killers, from cancer to heart disease.
Unravelling the human genome will enable pharmaceutical companies to design new drugs, some of which could be tailor-made for the needs of individual patients carrying a certain set of genes.
It also raises the prospect of the genetic engineering of "designer babies", ridding a family of an inherited curse or even modifying a perceived physical or mental deficiency.
Mr Venter's technique is radically different to the more methodical and slower approach of the Human Genome Project. …