Just over a year ago, biologist J. Craig Venter, Ph.D., launched a scientific race with the claim that his company, Celera Genomics, could sequence the entire human genome by the year 2001 — four years shy of the original end-date projected for the federally funded Human Genome Project. The National Center for Human Genome Research (led by Yale Ph.D. Francis Collins), which had already shortened the span of the 15-year endeavor through improved sequencing technology, has further accelerated its pace in the face of Venter’s challenge. The NIH plans to finish its project by 2003, with a working draft of the genome ready by 2001. (In November Celera and the NIH were reported to be considering a collaboration on the genome project).
As for Venter, who gave a talk to the Department of Genetics in June, critics say the maverick scientist’s “shotgun” approach — shredding bits of DNA into tiny fragments, then reassembling them with the help of computers — will leave gaps in the genome. But so do traditional sequencing methods, and those gaps can be filled in later, says Venter. “Across species,” he noted, “nearly half the candidate genes that have been identified cannot be assigned a biological role.”