EUROPEAN COMMISSION PRESS RELEASE: IP/96/344

Mike Miller mbmiller at SIRRONALD.WUSTL.EDU
Wed Apr 24 16:49:40 EST 1996


EU research funding supports genome discovery
96-04-24 09:24:47 EDT

          EUROPEAN COMMISSION PRESS RELEASE: IP/96/344
          DOCUMENT DATE: APRIL 24, 1996
          +
          A WORLD FIRST THANKS TO THE EU RESEARCH FUNDING: THE
          COMPLETE GENOME OF A COMPLEX ORGANISM IS UNRAVELLED
          +

          For the scientific world, it's a first, thanks to the support of
the European research framework programme: the entire genome of a complex
living organism, in this case yeast, is now known. In other words, the
total amount of genes which compose this organism - more than 6000 - have
been decoded one by one. This painstaking task, carried out by some 100
laboratories under the responsability of professor Andre Goffeau (European
Commission and Universite Catholique de Louvain), opens considerable new
perspectives for medical research. The yeast genome presents indeed a lot
of similarities with the human genes. Discovering the precise function of
each of these genes, which will be the next task for scientists, should
help us understand the origin and the evolution of more than forty
diseases, including many forms of cancer. Moreover, since yeast is very
largely used in food industry, important repercussions can be expected in
this area as well. Two press conferences are being held today in Brussels
(2 pm) and in Bethesda (National Institutes of Health, USA) to present the
results of the project. 
          Today is marked by the release of the final portion of the
sequence into databases accessible by the entire research community. The
yeast genome is the first complete DNA sequence from a higher species
(eukaryote (1)) to be fully known. 
          This truly international achievement is largely the result of a
European Commission led and funded project initiated seven years ago which
has involved close to 100 European laboratories working in a highly
coordinated manner together with laboratories from the US, Canada and
Japan. 
          Yeast is by far the most complex living organism to have its
genome fully sequenced: 12.06 million bases, representing some 6000
potential genes. The sequence data has already provided a wealth of
information, allowing considerable advances in the understanding the basic
mechanisms of life in higher cells. 
          This, in turn, is useful not only to companies using yeast in
food processes or for the production of industrial enzymes and
therapeutical agents, but also for research into human health. 
          More than 50% of the yeast genes turn out to be quite similar to
human genes. Thus, a yeast cell has much in common with a human cell. 
          The availability of these fully sequenced genes in yeast opens
new leads for research into human health disorders such as colon, breast
and ovarian cancers, Duchenne muscular dystrophy, etc. Two press
conferences are being held today in Brussels (European Commission) and in
Bethesda (National Institutes of Health, USA) to present the results of
the project and outline the benefits for basic research, health and
industry. 

          Unravelling the yeast genome

          As of 24 April 1996 the full sequence of the yeast genome will
be available with the release of the final portion of the sequence into
databases accessible by the entire research community. This data will
subsequently be published in the scientific journals. 

          Why Yeast ? 

          Yeast has been known and used by man for thousands of years;
indeed it is at the basis of the earliest applications of biotechnological
know-how, such as making bread, cheese, wine or beer. Today, more than
ever, it is an industrially useful organism and a valuable tool for
research. 
          Classified as a eukaryote, yeast shares many similarities with
man at the cellular and subcellular levels. Its genome is distributed
among 16 chromosomes, but it is about 250 times smaller than the human
genome and contains fewer genes. Thus, yeast provides a useful and
malleable model system in which to study basic biological processes that
also occur in man, without the ethical and practical limitations of
biological research in man. On the other hand, yeast is by far the most
complex living organism to have its genome fully sequenced: 12.06 million
bases, representing some 6000 potential genes. Indeed this sequencing
project has revealed a number of yeast genes that turn out to be quite
similar to human genes. 
          The availability of these fully sequenced genes in yeast opens
new leads for research into human health disorders such as: colon cancer,
adrenoleukodystrophy, cystic fibrosis, ataxia talangiectasia, amyotrophic
lateral sclerosis, achondroplasia.

          A network strategy

          From its launch in 1989, the project adopted a ``network''
strategy in which 37 laboratories concentrated on tackling one chromosome,
with each lab sequencing a predetermined portion of the chromosome. The
first milestone was reached in 1992 when the sequence of chromosome III
was completed and published. At the time it was the first chromosome ever
sequenced and the largest continuous sequence of DNA known (314,000 bp).
Its publication in Nature, aside from featuring a record number of
scientists (147) had enormous impact. Indeed it was recently identified by
Nature as one of the most significant scientific articles of all time. 
          This network strategy which had proven to be so effective with
chromosome III was then extended to the whole yeast genome in the
framework of the BRIDGE programme (1992-94) and later in BIOTECH
(1995-96). Selected chromosomes were attributed to groups of 15-20
laboratories, who in turn divided the work among themselves, under the
supervision of a ``DNA coordinator.'' Several major laboratories in the
United Kingdom, the United States, Canada and Japan were also involved
(see annex II). A provision for overlaps between adjacent fragments
ensured an additional control on the accuracy of the sequence data. 
          Europe is not only at the origin of this new approach to
molecular biology, but also provided much of the sustained funding
required to ensure the success of this venture. The total funds provided
by the Commission was 2,635,000 ECUs for chromosome III, and 17,160,000
ECUs for the other chromosomes sequenced by the laboratories in the
network. Overall 55% of the Yeast Genome was sequenced thanks the European
Commission, 22% by the National Institutes of Health (USA), 17% by the
Welcome Trust (UK), 4% by the McGill University (Canada) and 2% by RIKKEN
(Japan). 
          In the final stages, all EU-funded laboratories sent the genetic
information they had deciphered to the Martinsried Institute for Protein
Sequence (MIPS) in Germany, which assembled the sequences in the correct
order. Analysis and comparison with known DNA sequences revealed genes of
potential interest from both the scientific and industrial viewpoints. 
          This information was first made available, in an accessible
format, to a group of industrialists that are members of the Yeast
Industry Platform. In this manner, members of this platform had an
opportunity to contact the laboratory involved in sequencing particular
genes and arrange further development in view of possible commercial
exploitation. The sequences, together with accompanying information were
subsequently released into the EMBL database and are now all available for
consultation by anyone. 
          It is worth mentioning that 10 European SMEs specialised in DNA
sequencing contributed to the project. In fact many of these
entrepreneurial companies were created by university scientists involved
in the yeast sequencing project. Most of these companies are now
prosperous and independent of the funding provided for the project. 

          The results

          Since the first chromosome sequence was completed in 1992, the
remaining 97% of the yeast genome has been fully determined and has now
been handed over to the scientific community at large. The total amount of
DNA sequenced is 12.06 million bases of unique (non-redundant) sequence.
The level of accuracy, measured as an error frequency in the order of 1
per 10,000 bases, is 10-100 times more accurate than the average
submission to public databases.



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