Buccaneer gene scientist hopes to crack secret of life - and wealth

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"YOU may describe this as the full monty," said Craig Venter last week. But the American scientist is aiming to do rather more than reveal a few bodies on a stage. With $290m (pounds 180m) from US companies, he plans to reveal the genetic makeup of humanity - and to cash in on the useful bits.

But although he claims he will make most of the data available to scientists around the world, his plan - announced on Tuesday, just as the European Parliament agreed after 10 years' wrangling to a new directive that allows the patenting of genetic applications - has set tongues wagging in the scientific world.

The main fear is that Dr Venter's work will hinder, not help, the international effort to decode the "genome" - the DNA strand, comprising tens of thousands of genes contained in every human cell, which ultimately defines us.

"We have some experience of the method he plans to use," says Richard Durbin, deputy director of the Sanger Centre in Cambridge, one of the collaborating groups in the International Human Genome Project. "The data it produces is all in pieces. We won't know where all the pieces lie in the genome. It's like having a map turned into a jigsaw, throwing out some of the bits and shuffling them."

Dr Venter and his backers see commercial value in what they are doing. Some bits of the jigsaw are plainly more valuable than others: anyone who has done a jigsaw knows that corners and edges are far more useful than random bits of sky. It is the genes that are the equivalents of those corners and edges that Dr Venter's new, un-named company plans to patent both in the US and Europe.

The instrumentation company Perkin-Elmer, with The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR) run by Dr Venter, will provide systems able to analyse DNA automatically, requiring human intervention only 15 minutes a day. Tony White, chief executive, said: "Of course, we'll have first access to the data. If necessary we will patent 100 to 300 of the significant genes, but we don't know yet."

Genes are big business, and due to get much bigger. Already, 1,914 human genes are the subjects of patents in the US. Tests for genes predisposing to breast cancer, Alzheimer's disease, Huntingdon's disease, cystic fibrosis and other illnesses where genes can have a greater or lesser effect will be money-spinners in the future.

They are only the start. Somewhere in our DNA are the real secrets of life: how a cell knows to become a hair root rather than skin, how an entire arm grows from a bud on the embryo. If we can decipher that knowledge, encoded in an enormous array of the four "letters" (known as base pairs) of the DNA alphabet - A, T, C and G - we might change medicine for ever. Lost your arm? You could grow a new one. That sort of change.

Understanding and decoding those genes is the aim of the pounds 1.8bn International Human Genome Project which will decode the three-billion-letter human DNA sequence to an accuracy of 99.99 per cent, and make it available via the Internet.

The IHGP was set up in 1990 and began sequencing DNA two years ago. So far it has sequenced 3 per cent of the genome, with a scheduled completion date in 2005. Dr Durbin insists that everything is on track: "This is where we expected to be at this point," he says. "There's an acceleration process: it becomes exponential."

But, since genes can be patented (if you can show the Patent Office an application for them - which can be as simple as a test for them), peoplesuch as Dr Venter are keen to get there first. With Perkin-Elmer's aid, he thinks he will get there in 2001.

His move last week was typical of a man who has always leapfrogged conventional barriers on the path to riches via genes. In 1991, while working at the US's publicly-funded National Institutes for Health (NIH), he pioneered a technique allowing fragments of genes (called expressed sequence tags, or ESTs) to be easily and quickly produced. Within a few months the NIH had filed patent applications on almost 3,000 ESTs, and extended its claim to the genes to which these ESTs belonged - despite having no idea of the complete genes' "base pair" sequence or function. This sparked uproar in the scientific world. James Watson, the co-discoverer of DNA, resigned from the NIH over its decision to try to patent Venter's ESTs: he believed that patenting interrupted the free flow of information that is the lifeblood of good science.

Undeterred, Dr Venter left the NIH to kickstart the privatisation of genome sequencing - with $85m from HealthCare Investment Corp to set up TIGR. Though TIGR is a non-profit institution, its results are channelled through Human Genome Sciences, a commercial company.

In this modern version of the tortoise and the hare, it may be that the slower IHGP will be first to the right answers. But Dr Venter is betting that he will end up as a new Bill Gates.