Reporter 451, 8 May 2000

Leeds shares genome victory

Biology lecturer David Coates has shared the credit for a groundbreaking discovery in genetics involving 200 scientists at 34 research institutions in Europe and the USA.

The international team, led by Gerald Rubin of the University of California at Berkeley, succeeded in mapping practically the entire gene sequence of the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, the most complex organism yet known in this much detail.

Cover story: David Coates with the long-awaited issue of Science announcing the international research team's triumph

The insect, also known as the vinegar fly, has been a standard laboratory model for almost a century and the study of its 14,000-odd genes has been under way since 1991. Sponsorship by the research firm Celera Genetics enabled a great leap forward in less than two years: harnessing Celera’s phenomenal computer power increased the number of genes identified in the fly from 4,000 to 13,600.

"Celera’s founder, Craig Venter, decided that sequencing the genes of Drosophila would be a model - a proof of principle for the human genome project," said Dr Coates. He took part in the ‘annotation jamboree’ for which Celera assembled dozens of experts in particular fields of genetics - in his case, proteases and peptidases, enzymes which break down proteins in processes like digestion or immune response. "It was quite an experience, to work among many of the world’s leading scientists and one of the very best computing set-ups in existence," said Dr Coates.

"It was the first, and maybe the last time that such a team has been assembled to get it all in one go - and that made it great fun."

The discovery that the fly matches 177 of the 289 genes associated with human diseases means that the news, reported in two major papers in Science, promises historic advances in the understanding of basic human disease processes.

Other surprises in the final stages of the project arose from comparisons with the only two other complex organisms whose gene sequence is already known - the single-cell yeast, S. cerervisiae, and the nematode worm, C. elegans. Although the fruit fly is a far more sophisticated being than either, it has only twice as many genes as the yeast and 75 percent as many genes as the humble nematode.

More information is available from the Biology website:

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