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At Genome Publication Press Conference Spirit of Unity Masks Tension

WASHINGTON, D.C., February 12 - The Department of Energy’s Ari Patrinos arrived at the Capitol Hilton Monday armed with a stopwatch and a whistle.

But Patrinos, the moderator of the press conference to formally announce the simultaneous publication of Celera’s and the Human Genome Project’s genome data, luckily didn’t have to referee any disputes between the two sides. NHGRI director Francis Collins and Celera founder Craig Venter behaved cordially as they sat next to each other before a phalanx of news cameras and reporters to commemorate their momentous accomplishment.  

The two sequencing stars shared the stage with Eric Lander, director of the Whitehead Institute/ MIT Center for Genome Research, and Robert Waterston, director of the Washington University Genome Sequencing Center in St. Louis. Additional dignitaries included New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici, who secured initial congressional funding for the genome project, Mark Adams, Celera’s vice president of genome programs, James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA, and the editors of Nature and Science . Nature published the Human Genome Project’s analysis of the draft genome sequence, and Science published Celera’s genome assembly paper.

The spirit of cooperation was helped along by the fact that there were no major scientific disagreements between the two groups as to the content of the genome. “Validation is a good thing,” said Adams. “We’re buddies now,” Collins laughed.

Lander even said Celera scientists and Human Genome project leaders would meet at a workshop in April to “get together as scientists” and “compare notes” on the sequencing efforts and their future strategies.

“We’ll try to see if we can have much more cooperation going forward, and much less duplication," added Venter .

But despite this seeming spirit of unity, the ongoing squabbles over sequencing methods, access to data, and who has the more complete data set continued to bubble up as the assembled scientists spoke about the details of their published results.

Lander thanked Waterston for constructing the clone-by-clone map, which both the public project and Celera used as a scaffold for their sequence, and, in a reference to Celera’s use of this public effort, added, “I am sure I speak for everyone when I say how grateful we are.”

Waterston, who made possible the public project’s daily dump of newly sequenced data into GenBank, added a sideways jab at both Celera and Science , which agreed to publish Celera’s paper even though the company is restricting access to the sequence data by requiring academic subscribers to register and accede to a lengthy access agreement.

“Most importantly,” said Waterston, " we have made this available to the world without any constraints. No patents filed on the raw sequences. No subscription fees. No licenses. No documents to be signed. All you need is an Internet connection.”

" We at Nature are pleased to support the principle of access," said Philip Campbell, editor of Nature, echoing Waterston.

Donald Kennedy, the editor of Science, did not respond to these comments directly. “We’re delighted that there are two sequences because two sequences are better than one," he said. " As to the differences, the wonderful thing about science is that history has a way of resolving those differences.”

Both sides also defended their methods of sequencing the genome. “Whole genome shotgunning has been an unqualified success,” said Eugene Myers of Celera.

Waterston said the public strategy of assembling the book of life “chapter by chapter,” rather than from a whole " pile" of sequences, allowed for more collaboration.

Venter said later to a reporter that he thought the public project’s method was more amenable to finding repeats and other so-called junk DNA, but that it was not more accurate.

A Celera employee standing in the audience, who spoke on conditions of anonymity, went even further than Venter, commenting that the high number of collaborators in the public genome project could make it difficult to control the quality of the data. 

The sides also disagreed on the issue of finishing the genome. The public project’s leaders went out of their way to refer to Celera’s sequence as a “draft,” while Celera’s leaders referred to their work as a “sequence” and the public project’s work as a “draft.”

After the press conference, Waterston said Celera’s published assembly has 170,000 gaps, while the public project’s published assembly has 150,000. “Their sequence is clearly not finished,” he said. “They’re missing ten percent of the genome. Another fraction is in small pieces.”

But the Celera employee pointed out that the NIH has now begun negotiating with Celera to use its data. “If our approach doesn’t work,” the employee said, “then why have they started using it?"

-with additional reporting by Meredith Salisbury

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