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10 years of hard decoding

Much is at stake in the race to decipher the human genome in which the Public Genome Project and Celera are participating: scientific prestige, ego, and of course - the right to be engraved in the pages of history.

by Tamara Traubman
The Genome Project actually began in May 1987, when James Watson, who won the Nobel Prize for deciphering the double helix structure of DNA, appeared before the US Congress and requested an initial budget of one million dollars. The plan was to decode the genome by 2005, at a cost of 3 billion dollars. Today, 50 countries are members of the public genome project, including Israel.

The official announcement of the start of the public project was in 1990. The announcement changed the working patterns of scientists. Until then, they would decode DNA sequences in their lab that were relevant to their specific research, and because of the competition, they usually guarded this information jealously. Today every new piece of information is published within 24 hours on the Internet.

Watson was the first director of the Genome Project at the National Institutes of Health in the US. Among other things, he was responsible for coordinating and distributing the budgets between the American universities participating in the project.

At that time, Craig Venter, today the president of Celera, was working at the National Institutes. There he began to develop unconventional methods for deciphering genomes, and with their help identified several genes. The National Institutes decided to try to patent some of these genes.

Watson did not like this initiative. To this day, when the issue of patents on DNA comes up for discussion, his face turns red: "I hate it!", he says, "DNA should be free, there must be no patents on it."

In April 1992, Watson left the National Institutes. He was not ready to put up with a federal agency patenting the human genome. At the same time, he was accused of buying shares of private pharmaceutical and genomics companies - putting himself in a conflict of interest situation. His successor to this day is Francis Collins, who identified a gene associated with cystic fibrosis.

Five years later, the Parkin-Elmer Corporation developed the prototype of a DNA decoding machine called the ABI Prism 3700. The company's people realized the enormous potential inherent in it, and decided to establish a new company - which would later be called Celera - which would decode the genome with the help of hundreds of such machines.

They approached Craig Venter, who initially rejected the idea. A year later, he founded the Celera company.

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