Biologists want to try their hand at breaking the genetic code. An expensive project to unravel the human genetic code has been endorsed by the National Academy of Sciences. Biologists hope this vote of approval will help them get the $3 billion in federal funding they want.
NASA wants its Space Station. Physicists want their giant particle accelerator project. Now United States biologists want a megaprogram of their own - a $3 billion, 15-year effort to read the entire molecular ``text'' that contains the genetic instructions for making human beings. ``It's really a unique opportunity for biology to carry out a project which, although large scale, is guaranteed to succeed,'' says Charles R. Cantor, chairman of the Department of Human Genetics at Columbia University.
He explains that ``succeed'' means that this massive program to decode the human genome, as the human genetic blueprint is called, would be ``guaranteed to produce interesting medical and biological basic information and to produce interesting biotechnical spinoff.''
A special committee of the National Academy of Sciences is so impressed with this project to ``greatly enhance progress in human biology and medicine'' that, in a report released Feb. 11, it strongly urged the federal government to fund the endeavor.
Some of the members of that committee, including Dr. Cantor, subsequently discussed this strong endorsement of the controversial proposal during the recent annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
As Dr. Cantor explained, providing the ``text'' of the human genome ``is not ordinary research.'' It is the development of ``a tool which, when completed, will enhance the type of biomedical research which is currently going on,'' he said.
In other words, it will give biological researchers the text of the human genetic instructions, but it will not tell them what that text means. It's as though a massive archeological project will record the entire text of the records of an ancient civilization, but scholars will still have to work out what that text means.
Biologists trying to understand human genetics have recognized that having the genome ``text'' available would help their research. But many of them were concerned that a massive genome-reading project would become an end itself. They feared that putting such emphasis on a costly effort to develop this research tool would divert funds from actual biological research.
David Botstein, until recently professor of genetics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and now with Genentech, acknowledged that this is a very serious concern which he shares. However, Dr. Botstein explained, the fact that the National Academy of Science committee came out strongly in favor of the genome project reflects the emergence of consensus among biologists, including skeptics such as himself, that the proposed project can be carried out without compromising general research. He added that the Academy proposal urges that the project be guided by a strong science advisory committee to keep it on track.
Johns Hopkins University geneticist Victor A. McKusick, who chaired the AAAS discussion, noted that this consensus may be wishful.
The Academy committee is asking Congress for steady funding of $200 million each year for 15 years. This amount would be in addition to all the biological research funding now provided.
Dr. McKusick said he is ``optimistic'' that future Congresses and administrations will provide such steady extra funding. But he acknowledges there is little in the record of variable annual federal budgets to support that optimism.
Thus, as Dr. Botstein noted, the significance of the Academy recommendation to launch a massive genome-decoding project is the fact that biologists now are generally agreed that this would be worthwhile. Whether this will persuade the administration to request - and Congress to fund - that effort in the way biologists would like, is far from certain.