On a day of vivid hues last fall, an anxious group of architects, contractors, engineers and scientists gathered in the basement of a building in Rockville, Md. The structure was supposed to be converted by year’s end into the greatest DNA sequencing factory in the world, but the planning meeting confirmed that problems were piling up. Delivery of a crucial steam generator had fallen behind. And it wasn’t even clear that the walls of the 113,000-square-foot office building, which had been occupied by a defense contractor but now stood gutted, would accommodate all the pipes and wires needed to run the new laboratories.
The contractors were uneasy, but if the scientists present in the room weren’t overflowing with sympathy, it was because they had set themselves an even bigger task with an even more dramatic timeline. The researchers work for Celera Genomics Corp., a company formed last May with plans to decode by 2001 all the 3.5 billion chemical letters of DNA that make up human heredity. Celera intends not only to beat by four years the target date originally set by the publicly funded Human Genome Project (which began in 1990), but also to finish the job for a tenth of the government project’s $3 billion price tag.
If these claims were coming from another company, they might be dismissed as outrageous. But Celera is the child of Perkin-Elmer, the instrument company that monopolizes the market for automated DNA sequencing machines, and J. Craig Venter, the most controversial and productive genome researcher in the world. The partners agreed to give TR a preview of the substance behind their ambitious plan, and allowed a reporter to follow along as Celera’s facility came into being.
Much of the scientific expertise that powers Celera comes from The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR), an independent lab Venter founded in 1992. At TIGR, also in Rockville, Venter’s staff has employed a rapid-fire method known as the “random shotgun” approach to decode the genomes of nearly a dozen bacteria. No other lab has produced more DNA sequence-“readings” of the long strings of chemical letters designated A, C, G and T that make up the DNA molecule. Then again, Venter’s approach has never been tried on anything as large as the human genome, which contains about 1,000 times as much DNA as your average microbe. “It’s hard…to grasp the entire scale of this,” says Venter, now Celera’s president. “I can deal with millions, at least, because I spend them all the time now.”
The money behind Celera comes from Perkin-Elmer, an instrument giant for which the project is a dramatic shift toward controlling data rather than just making and selling equipment. The decision by officials at Perkin-Elmer’s Norwalk, Conn., headquarters to put a powerful new type of DNA sequencer to work for themselves has stunned the biotechnology industry and drawn comparisons to Microsoft’s move into online publishing. The partners pre-empted fears that they might hijack the genome by promising to hand over the data for free (but with a few caveats) to the public sector. Between Venter’s shotgun method and Perkin-Elmer’s deep pockets and new machines, Celera looks as if it could well live up to its name: a play on the word celerity, for rapidity of action.