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Accounting made easy for gene mappers.

Accounting made easy for gene mappers

Recent technological advances have triggered renewed optimism among scientists engaged in the gargantuan task of creating a map of up to 100,000 human genes. The nascent, international endeavor--expected to cost $3 billion over a 15-year period -- has survived its initial, two-year phase of "controlled chaos" and shows encouraging signs of scientific and political maturity, says Charles R. Cantor, director of the Human Genome Center at the Lawrence Berkeley (Calif.) Laboratory. He spoke this week at a gene-mapping conference in San Diego.

History's biggest biological research collaboration has been hindered in the United States by institutional turf battles, competing budgets and a lack of consensus regarding such basic choices as what computer languages researchers should use to store the mega-reams of data the project will generate. But a newly proposed, standardized method for storing and sharing details about the human generic blueprint may simplify matters, geneticists say.

The plan, proposed by four prominent molecular biologists in an essay in the Sept. 29 SCIENCE, calls for scientists to use a sensitive, genetic technique, the polymerase chain reaction, to determine the exact molecular sequence of a small portion of every gene studied. Two years ago, when researchers first plotted a U.S. gene-mapping strategy, they did not anticipate the availability of such high-resolution gene "name tags" so early in the project's course.

The new game plan generated mostly enthusiastic comments at the San Diego conference. In effect, it allows scientists to catalog their findings in the form of nucleic acid sequences stored in computer databases, which is far cheaper than the current practice of storing frozen cells in liquid nitrogen. Anyone wanting to experiment with a real genetic segment could construct one from scratch by feeding the stored recipe into a DNA synthesizer. Perhaps most important, the new system would allow various laboratories to continue using their favorite mapping methods, provided they record their final data in the standard format.

The application of the polymerase chain reaction and other new technologies to gene mapping has the genome project moving along faster than anyone had anticipated, scientists say. But nobody expects the project's price tag to drop, adds Cantor, since original estimates presupposed a 10- to 100-fold improvement in technological methods during the project's lifetime.
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Author:Weiss, R.
Publication:Science News
Date:Oct 7, 1989
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