Wednesday March 29, 6:23 pm Eastern Time
By Leslie Gevirtz
BOSTON, March 29 (Reuters) - Two-thirds of the three billion letters that make up the genetic instruction book of humans has been deciphered, the head of the Human Genome Project said on Wednesday.
The international consortium expects to finish the "working draft" that will include 90 percent of the human DNA sequence in late May or early June, Dr. Francis Collins, the project's director, told reporters covering Bio2000, a Boston gathering of more than 10,000 researchers and business executives in the biotech industry.
He said he expected the final version would be ready on or before 2003.
Collins predicted that in the next five-to-seven years it would be possible to know the genetic causes of a myriad of illnesses including diabetes, heart disease, multiple sclerosis, and cancers.
"That's going to happen," he said.
Collins made his remarks even as British and German scientists in Europe were telling reporters they had cracked the genetic code and mapped the sequence of a second strain of bacterium that causes most cases of meningitis in the developing world.
The knowledge gleaned from the human genome will lead to a myriad of ethical questions, Collins said, noting that people could be tested and possibly take drugs or alter their lifestyles to avoid or delay the onset of the illnesses. But at the same time, people could fear to take the tests if it led to discrimination in employment or health insurance.
Prevention of Genetic Discrimination Urged
Collins urged the U.S. Congress to pass "effective legislation to prevent genetic discrimination" in health insurance and employment this session noting that several "carefully crafted bills" on the issues had already been submitted.
The Human Genome Project is an international consortium of 16 institutions in France, Germany, Japan, Great Britain and the United States. The two billionth "letter" or base pair was deposited earlier this month by the Wellcome Trust's Sanger Center in Great Britain. The letter was a "T," the abbreviation for thymine, one of the four chemicals or bases that make up DNA.
Each 24 hour period, new segments of the genome are deciphered and deposited into the GenBank, a public database of DNA sequence operated by the U.S. National Institutes of Health. Collins said the Web site (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/genome/seq) has been getting more than 50,000 hits or visits a day from both the private and public sectors.
Sequencing or determining the exact order of DNA's four chemical bases,
commonly abbreviated A, T, C and G, is progressing at the rate of 12,000
bases every minute. Collins credited technological advances and the coalition's
collaborative nature for the speed at which the genome is becoming known.