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THE Human Genome Project has its roots in research carried out 50 years ago when scientists first discovered the structure of DNA.

It wasn't until 1986 that it was first proposed to map the human genome - and the experts said it would take decades and cost billions of pounds.

But thanks to astonishing advances and painstaking effort using amazingly tricky chemistry, the draft copy has been completed much quicker.

Scientists are well on the way to reading all three billion letters of the code - the genome recipe for human beings.

The Human Genome Project was set up to determine the DNA sequence of the entire human genome - to produce a complete map of the human body.

The blueprint for one human alone would fill 750,000 pages.

The team that made the breakthrough is based at 16 centres in six countries and funded by governments and charities.

In the UK, research is centred on the Sanger Centre, near Cambridge and led by Dr John Sulston. It was opened in 1993 by double Nobel Prize winner Fred Sanger, who invented many of the techniques used today.

The challenge was to decipher the entire DNA code of one representative human being, selected from a group of anonymous donors.

Between six and 12 donors were used, with researchers taking lengths of human DNA from blood samples.

The first step was to try and make a map of the human genome, to established recognisable genes or tell-tale lengths of DNA along all the chromosomes.

Once the position was located, the individual gene had to be identified from the 500 in each position.

It was painstaking work involving teams of scientists laboriously checking through tens of thousands of genes in hundreds of blood samples.

They spent every day staring at genes, watching the ways they reacted with each other.

The work continued throughout the nineties as individual groups around the world began to identify and then locate genes.

All used the same technique developed by Fred Sanger.

But the Human Genome Project was not the only organisation aiming to crack the DNA code. There was also a commercial company in America called Celera Genomics that was using a slightly different method.

Its involvement started a huge debate about whether any individual or company could claim ownership of the knowledge of what makes up the basic material of life.

Boss Dr Craig Venter, who had set up his own private research institute in 1992, stunned other scientists in 1998 when he announced that Celera would crack the entire genetic code in just three years. At that time the public project was three years into a 10-year programme.

The rivalry led to a major dispute between the two projects.

And it was only after lengthy and heated discussions that both agreed to publish their findings yesterday.

Cracking the genetic code has been an immense and incredibly expensive undertaking.

The entire 15-year Human Genome Project programme, up to 2005, is costing an estimated pounds 1.8 billion.

Sequencing the first draft of the genome on its own has cost almost pounds 200 million, of which the Wellcome Trust has contributed about pounds 80 million.

The total Wellcome Trust investment, including building the Sanger Centre genome campus near Cambridge and future research, amounts to some pounds 210 million.

How much Celera's Dr Craig Venter has spent is unknown.

There is still a long way to go.

And it will be another three years before the Book of Man is finally finished.
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Author:Medical, Jill Palmer
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jun 27, 2000
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