capital does big science

Les Schaffer schaffer at
Tue Feb 13 08:19:48 MST 2001

Double Helix With a Twist

Incyte Genomics advertises access to 120,000 human genes, including
60,000 not available from any other source. Human Genome Sciences says
it has identified 100,000 human genes, and DoubleTwist 65,000 to
105,000. Affymetrix sells DNA analysis chips containing 60,000 genes.

But now it turns out there might be only around 30,000 genes. If
that's the case, what exactly have these companies been selling?

The new gene tally -- 26,000 to 40,000 -- is among the most
significant findings in rival papers by Celera Genomics and the public
Human Genome Project, which competed to determine the entire sequence
of the human genome. For science and the genomics business, the papers
are landmarks. But they could also contain some land mines.

In particular, the consensus of the two rivals that humans have far
fewer genes than anticipated could raise questions about the
credibility of the genomics approaches used until now. It could also
mean that developing drugs based on gene studies will be quicker than
anticipated -- but also present a smaller business opportunity.

Moreover, if a human might have only a third more genes than a
roundworm, which has 19,000, that indicates that genes alone cannot
explain human biology. So companies and investors will gravitate
toward the next big buzzword, proteomics, the study of the proteins.

The lower number of genes also suggests that gene hunters have already
received or applied for patents on a greater proportion of total genes
than anticipated -- leaving less room for newcomers. But if genes are
not the whole story, it also means those patents could be worth less.

At the very least, the lower gene count will be used by Celera to
sling mud at competitors like Incyte and Human Genome Sciences. That
could help Celera sell its main product, a database of gene
information it provides to drug companies for millions of dollars a

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