Researchers are intending to accelerate the international project to identify all of our 100,000 genes.
At a meeting this week in the United States, the heads of the $3 billion human genome project agreed to complete a draft of the human genome by 2001. Researchers now aim to complete the full sequence by 2003, two years earlier than originally planned.
One-third of the work will be done at the Sanger Centre near Cambridge, which is funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Medical Research Council. "This is exciting news for the whole biomedical research community," said Michael Morgan, chief executive of the Wellcome Trust Genome Campus, where the Sanger Centre is based.
The decision to speed up the work followed an earlier announcement that a commercial company, Perkin-Elmer of Norwalk, Connecticut, was planning to pre-empt the project's work by producing a rough draft by 2001. The president of a publicly funded institute working on the human genome project in the US resigned to head the new commercial venture.
"Our analysis of Perkin-Elmer's plans came to the conclusion that what they would achieve would be a rough draft rather than the final gold standard needed for long-term research," said Dr Morgan.
He added: "There was pressure in the US for the publicly funded project to also produce a rough draft, and that will enable us to complete the whole job as planned but two years early."
Dr Morgan told of his discomfort with Perkin-Elmer's approach. "The prime objective of the internationally funded and conducted human genome project - the gold standard of contiguous, accurate and ordered sequence - is not to be sacrificed for expediency and profit. The human genome belongs to no one but belongs to everyone."
Fifteen per cent of the human genome has already been sequenced and the human genome project releases the information every 24 hours. This contrasts with Perkin-Elmer, which releases its information only every three months and in a form that is not useful to the human genome project, said Dr Morgan. Another commercial venture, headed by Incyte Pharmaceuticals of Palo Alto, California, does not release its data.
Accelerating the project will cost money. The Wellcome Trust, the world's largest medical research charity, has already spent Pounds 300 million on the project and will contribute a further Pounds 300 million to the science base over the next three years to support the work. Part of this money will be allocated through the MRC.
In the United States, any extra cash will have to come from the budgets of the National Institutes of Health.
"We are taking a risk based on the fact that the publicly funded project has exceeded all its targets to date," said Dr Morgan. "We are gambling on that continuing. We will have our fingers crossed."