A row between the private and public bodies racing to sequence the human genome erupted last week. It followed the collapse of recent secret talks in which the rivals were discussing a possible collaboration. But any hopes that the Human Genome Project (HGP) scientists and biotech company Celera Genomics might work together were fading fast by last Monday, as the talks degenerated into a slanging match.
The discussions broke down over Celera's insistence that once the project is complete, they should have exclusive rights to the data for a period of at least three years. This has angered the publicly-funded HGP scientists, who have always maintained the information should be made freely available. Last weekend the UK's Wellcome Trust, who fund much of the UK's human genome research, made public a confidential letter sent to Celera that outlined the difficulties between the two sides. They released copies of the letter on 6 March, a day before the deadline set for Celera's response - a move described by Craig Venter, head of Celera, as a 'low-life thing to do'. But Michael Morgan, chief executive of the Wellcome Trust's genome campus, says he felt forced to release the letter in advance of the response deadline because the Trust had been 'frustrated' by Celera's lack of response.
A collaboration would speed up completion of the project, currently estimated as 2003 by the HGP and 2001 by Celera. 'Humankind will be better served if we can find a viable way to join forces to produce a better product in a more timely fashion' stated the Wellcome Trust's letter. Originally opposed to any restrictions on the data, the HGP scientists had offered Celera a delay of between six months and a year to allow the company to safeguard their commercial sensitivities. But Celera argued that it did not want the millions of dollars it had spent on research to benefit rivals. Its compromise was that the consensus genome could be released publicly at the time of completion, but only on the condition that the data could not be used to compete with Celera's position as a database provider for three to five years.