Does Cyborg
Threaten Earth?

Do you see a pattern here? Will mapping the human
genome lead to bio-robots and an android future?
Genome Chiefs Make Show of Solidarity

BETHESDA, Md., June 6 (Reuters) - The two men heading up the race to map all the human genes made a public show of solidarity on Tuesday, playing down long-running reports about their rivalry.

Both Celera Genomics Inc. , based in Rockville, Maryland, and the publicly funded Human Genome Project are working as fast as possible to sequence, or map, the collection of genetic material known as the genome.

It is only a first step in decoding the genome and learning how to read it for the errors that lead to disease, for the differences that make one person thinner than the next and for the blueprint of life itself.

But it will be a landmark step, Celera president and chief scientific officer Craig Venter told a conference on genomics and cancer held at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

"In a very short while we will be announcing the complete sequencing and assembly of the human genome," Venter said. The market and scientists alike have been waiting for this news.

Celera has finished the sequencing portion of one human being's genome, but the assembly step means putting the code of As, Cs, Ts and Gs into an order that scientists can begin to interpret.

The most recent of the 40 or so genomes to be sequenced was that of the fruit fly, a favorite of laboratory scientists. Celera worked together with laboratories taking part in the Human Genome Project to do this, and the sequence was published in March.

"There's no reason for there to be wars," Venter said. He said he had a "great" collaboration with the team at the University of California at Berkeley.

But Celera and the public project, led by National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) head Dr. Francis Collins, have not worked together so far on the human genome. Celera uses the public project's information, which is posted on the Internet daily, but has so far kept its information to itself.

In January Celera and the Human Genome Project said an attempt to collaborate had fallen apart in a disagreement over rights to sharing the information.

Collins and Venter have played down the significance of the disagreement, but no new pact has been reached.

The two beamed at one another during the conference and held an impromptu news briefing during a break to declare their dedication to cooperating.

"Competition is a good thing. It gets people going. It gets the blood flowing," Collins said.

He said the media had exaggerated the image of Celera and the Human Genome Project competing in a race. "The footrace (idea) hasn't quite worked," Collins said. "I hope you guys are tired of it because we sure are."

He said his team was nearly done with a first version of the genome sequence.

"Our best estimates are that we are in there within a whisker of 90 percent of the genome," Collins said, saying the U.S., British, Japanese, German and other teams had worked on a "rather amazing timetable".

Venter also played down any suggestion that the two sides were competing, saying that collaboration was almost inevitable. "I don't think there are enough people working in this field," he said.

Collins also noted that Celera would eventually make its information available to paying subscribers, but would also provide the raw data on the Internet.

"I give a lot of credit to Celera, that they are willing to take this data in which they have invested hundreds of millions of dollars and make it available to the academic community," Collins said.

And in the end, publicity was good, Venter said. "Even though it has been painful to both of us ... one of the good side-effects of this is the world is more aware of genomics," he said.

For more info (of the serious kind):

NASA Develops Robots to Build Space Station

( - In coming years, you'll see astronauts go up to the ISS with super-dexterous cyber-companions that will reduce the need for humans to take that "small step" beyond the confines of their space ships.

Unlike smaller robots, the human-sized robots, called Robonauts, can latch on to the station and still have two "hands" free for manipulating objects and building the station as if it were a Tinkertoy.

Robonauts, under development by engineers at NASA's Johnson Space Center, will be controlled by astronauts inside the station using a virtual reality interface -- they'll wear helmets and gloves wired to record their motions and immediately transfer those intentions and actions to robots outside the station.

"We're using a humanoid shape to meet NASA's increasing requirements for Extravehicular Activity (EVA, or spacewalks)," NASA's Rob Ambrose said in a prepared statement. Ambrose is heading up the Robonaut project.

Doing it better

The two-armed, two five-fingered Robonauts come with a head and torso. Demonstrations in NASA's "Vomit Comet" weightlessness simulator have showed a Robonaut neatly catching a fly ball with finesse that might have impressed Joe DiMaggio.

Ever since the dawn of space exploration, hardware has been built so that humans could service it. But advances in robotics and the telepresence conferred by virtual reality have made it so spacewalking humans are no longer a requirement, Ambrose said.

"While the depth and breadth of human performance is beyond the current state of the art in robotics," he said, "NASA targeted the reduced dexterity and performance of a suited astronaut as Robonaut's design goals, specifically using the work envelope, ranges of motion, strength and endurance capabilities of spacewalking humans."

And while the space station is primarily a human habitat, NASA isn't limited its vision to the human form when it comes to interplanetary exploration. Engineers also are devising animal-sized robots to squirm and fly around the surface of Mars and other planets.

Space androids, at last

Robonaut's arms are threaded and studded with avionics elements to reduce cabling and noise contamination, Ambrose said. And like humans, Robonaut has a central nervous system that channels all feedback in a tree-structure.

Biology May Aid Semiconductors

Associated Press Writer

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) JUNE 08, 21:09 EDT — The biological processes that make seashells and teeth might be the keys to developing microscopic parts for supercomputers of the future, University of Texas researchers reported Thursday in the journal Nature.

"Nature has amazing control over forming materials like shells and bones, but we've never 'moved on' to electronically important material like semiconductors,'' said Dr. Angela Belcher, an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry who led the study.

In nature, cells routinely arrange microscopic amounts of minerals into hard structures, like bones. Belcher and her team focused on whether the process could be adapted to make other things.

"We are learning from nature, learning how nature makes materials and applying this to other systems,'' Belcher said.

The research is a promising step toward a solution for a fast-approaching problem. Conventional methods for etching ever-smaller computer devices on silicon wafers are reaching their limits. The work of Belcher and others could develop a way to assemble electronics from individual molecules.

President Clinton recognized the value of the science of nanotechnology — building at the atomic and molecular level — when he put $475 million into his 2001 budget to fund the National Nanotechnology Initiative.

He said nanotechnology could lead to memory devices capable of storing all the information in the Library of Congress in a device the size of a sugar cube, or it could build metals 10 times stronger than steel but at only a fraction of the weight.

Christine Peterson, president of the Foresight Institute, a nanotechnology think-tank in Palo Alto, Calif., said very few researchers in the field have used biology and chemistry the way Belcher did.

"That is very clever,'' she said. "Most of the people in this arena do not know enough biology to do this.''

Scientists Start Hard Part of Gene Research
AP National Writer

MAY 24, 2000 -  Every night, computers at 16 biology laboratories around the world dial up Bethesda, Md., and dump cryptic strings of code into a giant database.


This is the language of the Human Genome Project. Two competing teams are entering the final phase of a massive effort to collect and catalogue the human genes. Scientists predict this new knowledge will have profound medical, ethical, legal and economic implications. In many cases it already has.

"This is a revolution unlike anything that you'll see in your lifetime,'' says Richard Young of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Mass.

The Human Genome Project is frequently described as an effort to decode the human blueprint. But scientists aren't decoding the human genome — as the complete collection of genes is called — so much as entering it into a giant computer database.

What they have now is a good working draft; not a polished manuscript free of errors and gaps, but a rough copy complete enough to tell the story.

The problem is, nobody can read the story. Most of the genome is written in a language that scientists don't yet understand. It's as if they had just discovered some stone tablet inscribed with a mysterious ancient text.

Actually decoding the genes — understanding how they work, what they do and how they sometimes go awry — will be the work of the 21st century.

"Understanding this genome is going to take us another 100 years. Maybe more,'' says Harold Varmus, president of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City and former director of the National Institutes of Health.

The instructions for building and operating a human are deceptively simple. They are written into the ladder-like molecule called DNA. Each rung is made of a pair of chemicals that bind only to each other. If one half of the rung is the compound adenine, the opposite half is always thymine. If one half is guanine, then the other is cytosine.

That's it. Biologists usually refer to the four base molecules of DNA by their initials: A, C, G and T.

So the code of life is written using an alphabet of a mere four letters. It may sound simple, but at 3 billion letters long the human genetic code could fill 200 big-city telephone books.

That code tells an organism how to turn itself from an embryo into an adult composed of 10 trillion cells, go about its daily business, reproduce and die. Other things come into it of course. But at its most basic, life is just a set of genes directing an intricate biomolecular symphony.

If genes are the musical score of life, proteins are the tones themselves. Just as sheet music tells musicians what tones to play, genes tell cells what proteins to make.

Those proteins, in turn, do the work. They build the body's tissues, digest food, store memories, process wastes and even tell cells when to die.

To really understand genes, scientists have to determine how they interact with each other and also how the proteins work. That field, functional genomics, is in its infancy.

"We can specify what protein is being made,'' says geneticist Robert Waterston. "But then the question is what does that protein really do? What is its shape and what does it interact with? What cells is it present in? What cells is it not present in? What diseases does its expression alter? Does it go up in cancer? Does it go down in diabetes?''

Take the gene scientists have named BRCA1. When defective, it greatly increases the risk of breast cancer. Within weeks of its 1994 discovery, doctors could test a woman and tell if she had a defective version.

Since then hundreds of errors have been discovered in the string of 81,000 A's, T's, G's and C's that spell out the BRCA1 gene. But scientists still can't say how a BRCA1 mutation leads to cancer, much less do anything about it. They can't even say for certain how much a defective BRCA1 gene increases a woman's risk of contracting breast cancer.

Research published in the May 2 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences provided evidence that BRCA1 controls other genes that put the brakes on runaway cell growth. So damage to BRCA1 could allow the kind of unusual cell division that occurs in cancer to go unchecked.

But earlier studies suggested BRCA1 was involved in repairing DNA copying errors, and that a defective form of the gene would fail to correct the genetic mutations that can make a cell cancerous.

"This is a very basic research problem that we are studying,'' says Curt Horvath, a professor at Mount Sinai Medical Center who performed the research with colleague Toru Ouchi. "We're quite far from putting this at the bedside.''

Having all 3 billion letters of the human genetic code may not lead to immediate clinical benefits, but it will certainly accelerate research. Genes that once took years to pinpoint can now be located in a matter of days.

"It's going to make life a lot easier for us,'' Horvath says.

Progress on the Human Genome Project has been stunning. When they began in 1990, scientists projected that it would take 15 years to finish. But technology has sped it up.

Ten years ago, gene-logging was a labor-intensive task requiring great skill and an army of technicians. Today, robots and computers do it faster.

At the Whitehead Institute, one of the project's largest laboratories, none of the machines in use 18 months ago is still there today.

"We keep replacing the robots with new robots,'' says Eric Lander, head of the institute's genome center, as he stands in a room occupied by 123 washing machinelike gene sequencers and one human technician. "It's getting easier and easier to sequence genomes because of automation like this.''

Each of the $300,000 sequencers can crank out 50 million letters of DNA code a day.

In the last two years, technology has advanced so fast that it took only four months to collect the second billion DNA letters, compared with nearly a decade for the first billion. In the last year, the rate at which the world's major genetics laboratories enter data into the human genetic database has increased tenfold.

But nothing has spurred the Human Genome Project like having a competitor. Two years ago, iconoclastic biologist Craig Venter announced that he was forming a private company called Celera that would complete the human genome ahead of the public effort.

Venter quit his government research job in the early 1990s to start his own nonprofit laboratory funded by the biotechnology industry. The laboratory used an unorthodox method, called shotgun sequencing, to catalog the genes of bacteria and a number of other simple organisms.

Many biologists responded with skepticism. Venter's method might work for simple organisms, they said, but it would leave too many holes to produce a useful genetic manuscript of humans.

Nevertheless the leaders of the Human Genome Project took Venter seriously enough that they sped up their own schedule. In fall 1998 they announced that they would produce a draft version of the human genes by 2001 and a complete set of genes by 2003. Their concern was that if Venter finished the human genes first, the government might drop its own project and priceless biological information would never reach the public domain.

The Human Genome Project became a race. As the public consortium picked up the pace, Venter went to work on the genes of the fruit fly, known to scientists by its Latin name Drosophila melanogaster.

"Drosophila was chosen as a test system to explore the applicability of whole-genome shotgun sequencing,'' Venter and his colleagues wrote in a paper announcing their success in logging the fruit fly genes.

In April Celera announced that it had collected, but not arranged in order, a single individual's genes. Venter said that he would have a properly ordered working draft of the human genes "in three or four weeks.'' That deadline has passed, but experts believe Venter is near his goal.

Meanwhile, the Human Genome Project has announced that it will release its working draft in June.

Many geneticists bemoan the horse race mentality that has seized their field.

"It is an arbitrary exercise to say we are suddenly across some mystical finish line,'' says Sloan-Kettering's Varmus. "There isn't going to be a day when we say we don't have the genome and another when we say the genome is in our hands.''

The Human Genome Project is not like the transcontinental railroad, says Lander, useless until the 'golden spike' was hammered into the tracks in Promontory, Utah, on May 10, 1869. It is more like the interstate highway system, a road network that took decades to complete but revolutionized long-distance travel years before the last patch of asphalt was poured.

So it doesn't really matter who wins, or whether the human genome is finished in 2000 or 2003.

There are already miles of open road out there.

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