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Joint Genome Institute Exceeds 1998 Goal To Sequence 20 Million Human Base Pairs

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BERKELEY, Calif.--The Joint Genome Institute here exceeded its goal of sequencing 20 million base pairs of the human genome in fiscal 1998. The number is a tenfold increase over what the Lawrence Berkeley, Lawrence Livermore, and Los Alamos national laboratories, which comprise the institute, sequenced in 1997.

The institute is now the third most significant contributor to the Human Genome Project worldwide, following Washington University in St. Louis and the Wellcome Trust in the UK.

"This demonstrates the power of the labs working together as a system," commented Martha Krebs, director of the Office of Energy Research for the US Department of Energy, which oversees the national labs. "Now we are in a position to make a significant contribution to the next phases of the Human Genome Project."

Together the three labs sequenced up to 2.5 million base pairs per month in fiscal 1998, and they hope to sequence 70 million base pairs in 1999. Of those, 30 million would be high-quality bases and the remainder would be in a draft form. As new technology enables the sequencing project to pick up speed, Elbert Branscomb, the institute's director, said the labs are aiming to sequence over 100 million base pairs in 2000.

The institute's sequencing has been focused on chromosomes 5, 16, and 9, where researchers have discovered genes involved in diabetes, asthma, and schizophrenia. Branscomb characterized the chromosomes as containing "the most biologically interesting genes you can imagine."

Sequencing goals for the institute are related to a revised schedule that the Human Genome Project published in the October 23 issue of Science. According to the new timetable, the project will finish sequencing the entire human genome by 2003, two years ahead of the original schedule. Plans call for data to be released first in 2001, in a draft form that will be less accurate and less contiguous than the final sequence but which will still provide useful information. To date the combined international effort has sequenced about 7 percent of the 3 billion base pairs, or about 195 million bases, in the human genome.

All sequence data will be "freely and totally available" to scientists around the world, according to Krebs. "Our goal is to get the data out to users as fast as possible," she said, adding that the project will save $500 million for every year that the genome data are available earlier than expected.

Although the institute's three labs are independent, they share management and a budget. "The labs are still distributed but we are working as a single team," Branscomb explained. "The goals are set centrally and from these goals we derive budgets."

Next month, the institute will move to a new building in Walnut Creek, Calif., that will house 200 researchers working around the clock in three shifts. Branscomb said the move will consolidate institute scientists and streamline work.

Chris Martin, head of the institute's genome sequencing division, noted that the three labs use some different technologies. Decisions about which technologies to use in the new building remain to be made, and researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley lab are testing software tools and robotics to select the most efficient options, he concluded.

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