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WE'VE CRACKED THE CODE OF LIFE: BIGGER THAN THE WHEEL; Scientists salute 'most important advance ever'.

THE "book of life" breakthrough dwarfs even the invention of the wheel, a top scientist said yesterday.

It is a genetic map of the DNA that makes us what we are, governs our biological functions and determines our susceptibility to illnesses.

Dr Michael Dexter, of the Wellcome Trust - which gave pounds 210million to the international project that began in 1990 - said: "This is the outstanding achievement, not only of our lifetime, but in terms of human history.

"A few months ago I compared the project to the invention of the wheel.

"On reflection, it is more than that. I can well imagine technology making the wheel obsolete.

"But this code is the essence of mankind, and as long as humans exist, this code is going to be important and will be used."

The aim was to decode the three billion molecular "letters" that form human DNA and provide all the instructions for making a person.

Now the Human Genome Project has mapped 97 per cent of DNA and accurately sequenced 85 per cent.

This has been turned into a first "rough" draft of the entire text of DNA.

Filling in the gaps to produce the "gold standard" finished article will take another two to three years. In future, the data may make it possible to BANISH inherited disorders, SCREEN for vulnerability to diseases, TAILOR treatment to genetic make-up, CREATE thousands of new drugs, REPAIR faulty genes and EXTEND lifespan.

Our grandchildren could in effect be barcoded at birth to provide doctors with an invaluable database.

The research turned into a race between the publicly-funded pounds 2billion Human Genome Project - involving the UK, US, France, Germany, Japan and China - and American gene entrepreneur Dr Craig Venter. He aimed to patent genes and sell the information to pharmaceutical firms.

There was bitter rivalry until White House pressure led to a recent decision to co-operate.

The Sanger Centre in Cambridge sequenced one-third of the map, whose total information would fill 200, 500-page telephone directories.

Sanger director Dr John Sulston said: "Over centuries, this will inform all of medicine, all of biology, and will lead us to a total understanding of not only human beings, but all of life." Biggest player was the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The breakthrough was announced simultaneously in the UK and US yesterday. Tony Blair and President Clinton spoke via a satellite link.

Mr Blair said: "Every so often in the history of human endeavour, there comes a breakthrough that takes mankind into a new era.

"I am proud that Britain has played with others a pioneering role."

Mr Clinton said: "This is the most important, the most wondrous map ever produced by mankind."

The birth year of Leo Blair would be remembered as the year of the breakthrough. His life expectancy had "gone up by about 25 years".

Richard Dawkins, professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford, said: "Along with Bach's music, Shakespeare's sonnets and the Apollo space programme, the Human Genome Project is one of those achievements of the human spirit that makes me proud to be human."

MPs and others warned of a threat to privacy and the danger of creating a genetic under-class.

Author Dr Tom Shakespeare said: "Will employers, insurers, or the state use this knowledge to discriminate against people unfairly?"
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Author:Palmer, Jill; Rock, Lucy
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jun 27, 2000
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