WARRENTON, Va.--The Institute for Genomic Research's Craig Venter was the topic when an elite group of 80 scientists gathered here May 28-29 for a Human Genome Project five-year planning meeting. Venter's announcement of his plan to use Perkin Elmer Applied Biosystems technology to sequence the entire genome within three years came just two weeks before the meeting. Considering suggestions made recently by scientists such as Human Genome Science's William Haseltine that the government defer to Venter and get out of the human genome sequencing business altogether, the meeting could have been dismal. But, according to US Department of Energy biologist Dan Drell, discussions there actually raised spirits among the sequencers.
Drell said a presentation of Perkin Elmer's goals given by Michael Hunkapiller, Venter's partner in the new venture, made it clear that the goals of the Human Genome Project differ significantly from Venter's. "TIGR and PE are looking for expressed regions and doing just complete enough coverage to tell if it's worth going after a gene in a commercial sense," Drell said.
"Their venture is really meant to do a rapid and not very deep coverage of the genome. The predictable consequences will be a large collection of contig islands--orphan contigs that don't map to a chromosome," he said. Drell described the probable outcome as a "disordered jigsaw view" of the genome.
The Human Genome Project instead seeks to compose an end-to-end, high resolution, high accuracy, complete genome. "We're building the bedrock and the reference," Drell said. "The strategy they're pursuing won't give them the whole genome," he added.
With that point clarified, Drell said, the meeting was back on track.
But the TIGR/PE collaboration raises another major concern for human genome seqeuncers, Drell pointed out. "One predictable outcome will be the drain on bioinformatics personnel," said Drell. "They're going to need more people to search sequences." While TIGR bioinformatics director Tony Kerlavage said the supersequencing venture will hire hundreds of new staff, Drell predicts a drain not just on government sequencing projects, but on the bioinformatics world in general, "which is not that big to start with," he said.
Drell said that although the subject of bioinformatics didn't get much floor time at the planning meeting, he sensed "more of an acceptance of informatics than ever before."
At another recent genomics meeting at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Drell said the point was made that GenBank now contains "something in the order of 140 megabases" of the human sequence. That number hits researchers in the face like a glass of cold water, he said. "We're not going to be able to exploit that without significant computational tools," Drell said. "The role of informatics is recognized now more than ever. Clearly there's got to be something done to get more people into this."
The Human Genome Project's next five-year plan is expected to be published in Science magazine's genome issue this fall.