Genes, genes, and more genes

In the race for genes, a desire for publicity seems to be winning out over the peer-review process. Instead of scientific publication, genome researchers are increasingly turning to press releases and news conferences to present their findings.

In the past few weeks alone, the Department of Energy (DOE) announced that its scientists had completed a “rough draft” of the DNA sequence of three human chromosomes, a controversial biotech firm reported that it had sequenced all the DNA of a person, and an agricultural company surprised plant scientists by saying that it had deciphered almost all the genes of rice and would make that information freely available.

DOE held a press conference to describe progress that agency scientists have made toward decoding the genetic information of human chromosomes 5, 16, and 19. It may take more than a year, however, before the investigators finish their work and have the data presentable for scientific publication.

A week before DOE’s briefing, Celera Genomics, a private company in Rockville, Md., issued a carefully worded statement declaring that it had “completed the sequencing phase of one person’s genome.” Celera’s stock price soared initially as some investors mistakenly viewed the company’s claim as the end of the race to crack the human genome (SN: 5/23/98, p. 334).

Yet Celera only has short, unordered DNA sequences from the man’s genome. It must assemble the genetic fragments into a full genome, a complex task requiring DNA sequencing of other people’s genomes to get the accuracy that most researchers want. The firm suggests it may finish within a month or two.

Perhaps the most important genome claim in April came from Monsanto Co. in St. Louis. The company said that, with the aid of scientists from the University of Washington in Seattle, it had produced a “working draft” of the rice genome. The previously secret project startled rice researchers, especially those in the 10-nation consortium already sequencing the plant genome. Any bruised egos should heal quickly, however, if Monsanto keeps a promise to share its data with the consortium.