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Unlocking the Key to Life

It is what makes us all alike and unique at the same time--our genetic code. Scientists today, along with President Clinton, announced that they have cracked that code for the first time ever.

"We are learning the language in which God created human life," says Clinton.

And what is that language? It's called the human genome. In simplest terms, it's a genetic instruction manual for life. We develop as human beings because each and every one of our genes comes with instructions on what function it should perform--from building bones to muscle to skin and hair.

Those genetic instructions, found in our DNA, are scrambled together in a four-letter alphabet. Sequencing the genome means putting that genetic alphabet, all 3.2 billion letters, in order so they can be read.

The feat was achieved by competing groups, both public and private, who say the work was only made possible by the development of powerful machines capable of breaking down and reading DNA in seconds.

"We've managed to do in nine months what we thought it was going to take 15 or 20 years to do," says Dr. Craig Venter, president of Celera Genomics.

Still, the real work is yet to come. Dr. James Watson first identified the structure of DNA. "We've got the book. Now we have to learn how to read it," he says.

Once mastered, the strange new text will spell out genes and even more importantly, genetic malfunctions. Experts say that will help them understand disease better, so medicine will improve.

But it won't happen overnight. The gene for cystic fibrosis was discovered ten years ago. There's no cure yet, but Dr. Robert Beall, President of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation says, "We actually have about 15 different products and treatments in clinical trials as we speak."

Doctors will also be able to identify who is at risk for certain inherited diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer's, leading to early detection and treatment that could save lives.

"We can promise that knowledge and understanding of real causes not just symptoms of disease should become available from this," says Eric Lander of the Human Genome Project.

Scientists expect it will take another two years to perfect their genome sequence, but already even the working draft is being poured over by researchers eager to put it to good use. So clearly this is more of a beginning than an end, and a new foundation for science.
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