This week we report on the completion of the human genome sequence. But you could be forgiven for missing it. Only the Guardian newspaper gave the announcement significant column inches - most other news organisations gave it little more than a passing mention. Nearly three years ago, in June 2000, when the draft of the human genome sequence was announced, everyone went crazy for genes, declaring the draft sequence to be 'biology's moon landing'. In comparison with the excitement then, the complete sequence of the human genome seems a bit like an everyday occurrence.
The discrepancy in press attention demonstrates one thing at least: that politics and people often set the tone for media coverage of scientific breakthroughs as much as science does. When the draft sequence was published, a host of celebrities and characters was involved. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair linked up by satellite to praise the work of the scientists involved in the international effort. Then there was the 'race' to publish between the publicly-funded researchers, figure-headed by Francis Collins in the US and John Sulston in the UK, and the private US company, Celera, led by Craig Venter, which gave the journalists personalities and principles on which to hang their stories. Add to that a more buoyant biotech sector and the fact that no major wars were distracting attention and it's easy to see why we were gripped with gene fever.
Perhaps, with the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the double helix being celebrated this weekend, the enthusiasm will shift up a gear. The structure of DNA at least has the advantage of an associated character (James Watson) and easy visual recognition. Such elements - combined with the various 50th anniversary celebrations - ought to make this week's festivities more journalistically appealing.
Maybe, however, we shouldn't hope for a media extravaganza. When the draft sequence hit the headlines (and stayed there), many complained about the gene hype, saying it would do genetics no favours in the long run. Even great enthusiasts for genetics worried that emphasising the future benefits of human genome research was bound to leave us disappointed. That said, genetics has already come on in leaps and bounds and brought enormous benefits to some patients and their families. We'd be interested to hear your views on fact and fiction in genetics at our forthcoming public debate, 'Gene Hype?', to be held in London on 29 May 2003.