I'll take a Lucky Dip and key to life, please

June 11, 2004

Members of the public may soon be able to sequence part of the gorilla genome when they buy a lottery ticket, writes Anna Fazackerley.

Julie Webb, a postdoctoral researcher at Imperial College London, has devised a project that will set ordinary people to work decoding the millions of data charts that will make up the gorilla genome.

One possibility is that people will buy a pack of sequence cards from their local lottery outlet and then take them home to decode them on their own computers.

The researchers are keen to work on the gorilla in the hope that they can map the tiny proportion of the human sequence that eludes scientists.

Dr Webb said: "It is less than 1 per cent but scientists just can't get it.

Trying in a different organism may work, and the gorilla and human sequences are very similar."

Dr Webb hopes the cards could spark a new collecting craze among schoolchildren, becoming a scientifically useful version of the Pokemon game.

The project is still in the discussion stage, but the Wellcome Trust has already expressed excitement about it and the Institute of Contemporary Arts is keen to collaborate.

The Sanger Institute, one of the major players in the human genome project, has been involved in the idea from the outset. Although reading the bases of DNA may sound like a difficult task, the research team involved is confident that technology-obsessed children will take to it easily. They hope that taking part in such an important experiment will fire children's interest in science.

The information that participants will be given will be in the form of a line graph with a series of different colours. Each coloured peak on the graph represents a different letter, and the letters form the coded answer participants are seeking.

It is likely that users will type their code into a website, which will tell them what they have found - be it junk DNA, a part of a known gene or a sequence that has never been seen before.

Amanda Fisher, chair in cell biology at Imperial and the head of Dr Webb's laboratory, explained: "We could select medically important genes for people to look for. But the best thing will be a wild card - a sequence with no match that could feed into the human genome project."

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