By Maureen McDonough
June 14, 2005 | In a decision that essentially marks the end of the genome wars, Celera Genomics will release its formerly proprietary human, mouse, and rat genome sequences to the public domain. The decision goes into effect on July 1.
Launched in 1998, Celera’s original business model sought to charge hefty subscription fees to its proprietary genome data from biopharmaceutical companies. While allowing limited access to academic users, Celera declined to deposit its data into the public archive, GenBank.
The timing of Celera’s decision to release the genomes into the public domain was entirely financially based. “It was pure cost-benefit analysis,” says David Speechly, Celera’s senior director of investor relations and corporate communications. The subscription revenue no longer justified the cost of maintaining the online service, he says.
Celera’s turnabout has generated some kiss-and-make-up feelings from former rivals. Francis Collins, who led the public human genome consortium and is director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, told Nature, “They have done a generous thing here and should be getting a lot of credit.”
End of an Era
The imminent release of some 30 billion base pairs of sequence data marks the end of Celera’s existence in the information business. That transition from a data-selling company to a biopharmaceutical company began back in 2002, when Kathy Ordoñez, a pharmaceutical veteran, replaced company founder, J. Craig Venter.
“We believe that contributing these data sets should stimulate more experimentation among academic and commercial researchers, which should, in turn, increase demand for Applied Biosystems products,” Ordoñez said in her most recent earnings call.
Speechly points out that “not all the information has gone out.” Data that may help Celera in its drug discovery research will not be released. “There is still a large amount of information at our disposal,” Speechly says.
Steve Scherer, a physician at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, doubts that the release of Celera’s DNA data will have a huge impact on the scientific community. However, it might significantly affect more sophisticated users who know how to compare and contrast the Celera sequence to the public data.
Scherer was involved in decoding chromosome 7 by comparing the Celera and public consortium genome maps. By doing so, he was able to find missing sequences, errors, and differences. In the regions where the public sequence has gaps or mistakes, the Celera sequence could potentially be useful.
“In the best-case scenario, [GenBank] should be integrating the novel Celera sequence into the known gap regions,” Scherer says. “Last time we looked there were still several hundreds of thousands of nucleotides of sequence missing from the public build of chromosome 7.”
While the availability of Celera’s human sequence data is likely to benefit only the most advanced users, the release of Celera’s inbred mouse sequences may have more of an impact, as the public mouse genome sequencing effort is still in progress.
“Moreover, since Celera has sequenced different mouse strains [than the public program], their sequence will have huge value to those scientists studying genetics and mapping,” Scherer says.
The public project is currently sequencing the mouse strain C57BL/6J. Celera will be releasing its data on C57BL/6J, as well as three other strains — 129X1/SvJ, A/J, and DBA/2J.
Asked about Celera’s decision just before his keynote address at the Bio•IT World Conference + Expo last month, Venter declared he was pleased with Celera’s decision. “I just wish they had done it sooner,” he said.
Ironically, the genomic information generated from his ongoing Sorcerer II expedition is being deposited directly into the public domain. “We’re now getting criticized for making our data public,” Venter said. “I can’t seem to get on the right side of this equation.”