Science  30 Jun 2000:
Vol. 288, Issue 5475, pp. 2297

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  1. Relishing Victory

    The human genome wasn't the only organism whose sequence earned the spotlight this week. Plant geneticists are hailing the imminent completion of work on the wispy, ankle-high mustard plant called Arabidopsis, a model system for plant biologists.

    As of last Saturday, 108 million of the plant's 120 million nucleotide bases had been sequenced and made publicly available, Anthanasios Theologis of the University of California, Berkeley, told the International Conference on Arabidopsis Research meeting in Madison, Wisconsin. The five participating international groups hope to finish the job by the end of July, well ahead of the original 2004 target date.

    Government funders and sequencers boast that the Arabidopsis genome is extremely accurate, with only 1 error in every 20,000 bases, says Theologis, and contains few gaps. “It's probably the best done of all genomes,” he adds. And although its completion will mark the first detailed genetic record of a plant, the real value will be as a template for the rice genome, some four times larger. “Nobody eats Arabidopsis,” notes John Quakenbush, a researcher with the Arabidopsis group at The Institute for Genomic Research in Rockville, Maryland.

  2. Hear Our Plea

    The honeymoon may be over between French scientists and their new research minister, Roger-Gérard Schwartzenberg. Schwartzenberg, who took over in March from sacked predecessor Claude Allègre (Science, 31 March, p. 2387), promised to boost several fields, particularly the life sciences. But on 15 June, three leading French biologists decried an “extremely serious” lag in French biology in a letter to Schwartzenberg, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, and Finance Minister Laurent Fabius. France hasn't kept pace with major budget increases for biological research in the United States and Japan, notes the appeal, which seeks more funds and has been signed by nearly 400 biologists.

    “Life sciences have an ambiguous position in France,” says Henri Korn of the Pasteur Institute in Paris, who launched the campaign with Pierre Chambon of the Collège de France and Alain Prochiantz of the basic research agency CNRS. “On one hand they are given almost mythical status, [but] on the other no one really cares.” The petitioners hope their plea will change things, but so far neither Schwartzenberg, Jospin, nor Fabius has responded.

  3. Money Trouble

    Scientists are blasting the South African government for offering expense-paid trips to 45 members of a controversial advisory panel that is revisiting HIV's role in AIDS. South African President Thabo Mbeki—who has said his government can't afford the relatively cheap drugs that prevent mothers from infecting their babies with HIV—was lambasted by critics in May when he expressed doubts that HIV caused AIDS and convened a review panel that includes prominent HIV skeptic Peter Duesberg of the University of California, Berkeley (Science, 28 April, p. 590). Now, even some panelists who live outside South Africa are enraged that the government is offering generous per diems, business-class air tickets, and swank hotels to the group for its final meeting in Johannesburg on 3 to 4 July, before a major international AIDS conference in Durban.

    But panelist Stefano Vella, president-elect of the International AIDS Society, believes that the money will be well spent if the panel convinces Mbeki that HIV causes AIDS. “We can't skip dealing with him,” says Vella. “South Africa is seen as a leading country in Africa.” A government official who sent the invitation did not respond to Science's inquiries.

  4. Genetic Variety

    Forty Japanese drug firms will fund a $10 million program to explore single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), the single-base variations in a person's genetic code that influence disease risk and treatment reactions. University scientists involved in the program, set to begin next year, will analyze blood samples from 1000 Japanese individuals and make the data freely available to other researchers.

    The project will run in parallel with two existing efforts funded by the government and an international consortium. Backers of the $45 million SNPs Consortium, supported by European and U.S. firms, hoped that Japanese companies would join their effort (Science, 16 April 1999, p. 406). But a spokesperson for the Japan Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association said that the group felt it needed its own program, although future cooperation is possible. And how the private effort, which has an applied focus, will coordinate with Japan's more basic research-oriented public program isn't clear, says Yusuke Nakamura of the University of Tokyo, who heads the government-funded effort. But he agrees that Japan “definitely needs its own [SNPs] database.”