As the Genome Race Ends, Another Begins

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Celera president J. Craig Venter discusses genome research findings

Goodbye, race to decode the human genome. Hello, race to decode the human proteome.

The publishing in scientific journals this week of the twin reports on the newly decoded human genome — one by Craig Venter and his company Celera, one by the publicly funded Human Genome Project — was the end of a long and unprecedented race to unscramble humanity's Book of Life, and supposedly the beginning of new golden age of medical miracles and biotech booms.

Be patient. Because science has a way of burying every new answer in a hundred new questions, and the backlash has already begun.

The Competition

Venter is already accusing his biotech competition of selling access to genes that don't exist. His and the government consortium's tallies both came up with a total number of human genes between 26,000 to 40,000 (a rather fuzzy final answer in its own right), while Incyte Genomics, a Celera competitor, says it's got 120,000. Human Genome Sciences says it has identified 100,000 human genes. DoubleTwist pegs it at 65,000 to 100,000. Affymetrix sells DNA analysis chips with 60,000 genes.

Venter, always one to boast, says his numbers are "a truth serum for the industry." He may be right; Incyte now says what it's got is the number of "messages" sent by genes, not the genes themselves. Their mistake, but maybe their profit too. Because the first consequence inflated numbers mean is that the longstanding "one gene, one protein" tenet of human biology has been thoroughly exploded. And the biotech world just got slapped in the face by a new frontier.

The Next Race

Which brings us to proteomics. That the human genome has only 30,000 genes (about three times as much as a fly, and only 11,000 more than a worm), but "messages" — basically, proteins handcrafted for internal use by the apparently versatile genes — numbering in the hundreds of thousands leads to two conclusions for the biotech field.

First, that with only 30,000 genes to go around (of which, it's been argued, only 3,000 or so are viable from a pharmaceutical point of view) the golden age of medical applications (meaning, $$$) could be brutish and short. Second, that the pointy end of genomics' scalpel would seem to be not in the genes, but in the proteins. And decoding the human proteome — well, that's a whole other race.

The race is on.