Team spirit for the gene jigsaw

A Quest for the Code of Life
October 10, 1997

This delightful small book describes the setting up of the Wellcome Trust's Genome Campus, which opened on October 8. This exciting enterprise is likely to have a profound influence on medical science. The immediate objective is the determination of the entire nucleotide sequence of genomes, and in particular that of the human genome.

This is probably the first time that molecular biology has been involved in "big science''. Many projects in the physical sciences, such as particle research and planetary exploration, involve large groups of scientists working together with complex and very expensive equipment towards a set objective. But exploratory molecular biology has essentially involved individuals or small groups working independently. Recent advances have raised the possibility of determining the complete sequence of nucleotides in a genome. This sequence contains all the information for the production of an organism and to know it will greatly increase our knowledge of living matter - how it is made and how it works.

This enterprise is part (and probably the major part) of an international endeavour. Many laboratories, especially in the United States, are participating. There is so much to do that there is no need for competition - although some groups, in particular in industrial laboratories, are keeping their results secret in the hope of being able to exploit them. In contrast, the results from the Wellcome Campus are put on to the Internet as soon as they are obtained and are available to any scientist who wishes to use them for the general good.

A new campus involving several hundred scientists needs more than money. Finding a suitable site was one of the first problems. Hinxton Hall, a rather run-down country estate near Cambridge, was eventually chosen. This was empty and also contained some disused laboratory buildings that could be rapidly adapted to house the first researchers while larger and more distinguished buildings were constructed. The book gives the history of Hinxton Hall, and even the prehistory of the site. Before the new buildings could be started the area was surveyed by archaeologists who found evidence of occupation going back to neolithic times. The final chapter is a brief summary of the history of medicine and is beautifully illustrated, with much material from the Wellcome's own collections. Sir Henry Wellcome, the philanthropic founder of the trust whose life is described in the book, was a great collector.

The chapter is entitled "Modern genetics in perspective'', but unfortunately the account of the most critical discovery to the Genome Campus is somewhat out of perspective. This is the finding that DNA is the genetic material, which the authors ascribe to Watson and Crick, whereas when they discovered the double helical structure in 1953 it was already known that DNA was the gene. This had been established previously by a great deal of experimental work, the first definitive results of which are usually attributed to Oswald Avery and his collaborators in 1944. Altogether the book is an excellent read. The scientific aspects are not overwhelming and could probably be understood by most people. It is well and liberally illustrated, and gives a clear impression of the excitement and interest of this venture.

Frederick Sanger is a double Nobel laureate in chemistry. The Sanger Centre is the main building of the Genome Campus at Hinxton.

A Quest for the Code of Life: Genome Analysis at the Wellcome Trust Genome Campus

Author - Liz Fletcher and Roy Porter
ISBN - 1 86983 591 3
Publisher - Wellcome Trust
Price - £5.00
Pages - 102

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