Read out The decoding of the human genome will be completed sooner than planned. In the biggest marathon in the history of biology, the researchers in the sprint rush to the finish, without having run the last few laps. German geneticists are hardly there. By 2005, the global community of gene puzzlers had wanted to waste time deciphering all the letters of human genetic information. But then came the announcement of the private researcher Craig Venter and his company Celera. He also wants to sequence the human genome, but for paying customers - and in record time. At the same time, Venter threatens and accelerates the most unusual project of modern biology, and reveals a German dilemma.

Unusually, the genome project is not only because of its dimensions - over three billion dollars were set for it - but also because of its coordination and accompanying research. Scientists around the world agree who takes over which tasks. For example, Germany has taken over parts of chromosomes 7, 11 and 21 as well as the sex chromosome X. This prevents duplication of work, which is often the case in modern biology, because experts do not like being looked at.

The accompanying research is also unusual. Five percent of the funds go into projects that deal with the moral issues and social consequences of decoding the genome. These projects are not only sponsored by state-owned companies, but also by industry.

One of the key principles of publicly funded genome projects is the obligation to disclose all results. Anyone who gets genetic material from the Resource Center of Prof. Annemaria Poustka in Heidelberg does not have to pay a penny. However, with the results he gains, he can not make money or disappear in a drawer to secure patent rights or other benefits. He has to bring his results into the common database in order to give other scientists the opportunity to continue working with them. This principle was not always self-evident in Germany. In 1997 there was even an international dispute. The trigger was a demand of the Association for the Promotion of Human Genome Research, in which the major German chemical and pharmaceutical companies have joined forces. With the association, they support German genome research at institutes and universities. They wanted something in return: all the results obtained with their support should be kept secret for six months so that the patent departments of the companies can test them for commercial exploitation. Only after international protests of the other partners, the companies steered. display

Of course, Celera, which wants to make money from genetic data, works completely differently: the company sells the results of its decryption work to interested parties, but retains the rights to the data for commercial exploitation. Already in the first five weeks of its sequencing work, the company has completed about 6500 preliminary patent applications.

For Francis Collins, the international director of the Human Genome Organization (HUGO), the community of state researchers, this is a completely different ideology. The knowledge of human genes must be common knowledge, remains the motto of the publicly funded groups. The consequence: In the USA and Great Britain, the working groups fall from continuous run to sprinting pace. Day and night, the sequencing machines are running at full speed. HUGO intends to submit a so-called "working version" of human genetic information by next May.

While in the UK and the US more and more money for sequencing is available, it looks completely different in Germany: the Federal Ministry of Education and Research cut the funds. "We now only have 40 million marks a year, " complains Dr. Johannes Maurer, Head of the Coordinating Committee. "Overall, we have less available than the American colleagues alone as an increase."

Prof. Hans Lehrach from Berlin, one of the directors of the German genome project, even sees the forced renunciation of the local researchers for the final spurt as a danger that future work in the handling of the necessary technology is missing: "The automated sequencing is only the beginning. If we want to understand how hundreds of genes work together, then we also need to automate the decryption of their function. "

For Lehrach, the mistakes that were made 30 years ago in Germany with the lack of microchip research are repeated in genome research: "Just as we buy chips and computers abroad today, so probably we will probably get our gene data for cancer research in the future at large research companies have to buy expensive. "

=== Thomas Willke


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