One day last April, Aristides (Ari) Patrinos, a scientist at the Department of Energy who directs that agency's share of the Human Genome Project, got a call from Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health's National Human Genome Research Institute and the project's unofficial head. "Let's try it," said Collins--and at those words Patrinos knew that a longstanding scientific feud finally had a chance of being resolved. For months, Collins had been under pressure to hammer out his differences with J. Craig Venter, the prickly CEO of Celera Genomics, which was running its own independent genome-sequencing project--differences over who should get the credit for this scientific milestone; over whose genome sequence was more complete, more accurate, more useful; over the free exchange of what may be mankind's most important data versus the exploitation of what may also be its most valuable.
The bickering had become downright nasty at times, upstaging the enormous importance of the project and threatening to slow the pace of scientific discovery. Therefore Patrinos had been lobbying his colleague to make love, not war, despite Venter's uncanny ability to get under the skin of Collins and other leaders of the U.S.-British genome project. So had Collins' counterparts at other NIH institutes. And so, most important, had President Clinton, who at one point scribbled a note to science adviser Neal Lane with the terse instruction: "Fix it...make these guys work together."
Venter was clearly ready. His tactless rhetoric had lost him respect among his colleagues, and he recognized that more controversy could overshadow a historic moment in biomedicine. Beyond that, he'd taken a beating in the marketplace. After a joint declaration by Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair in March that all genomic information should be free, the value of Celera stock plummeted from $189 a share to $149.25.
So on May 7, over pizza and beer at Patrinos' Rockville, Md., town house, the two wary antagonists sat down in a deliberately casual setting to work out their differences. In an exclusive conversation with Collins, Venter and TIME correspondent Dick Thompson last Thursday night, Patrinos recalled, "I don't think I've ever seen them as tense as they were that day." Yet despite mistrust on both sides, Collins and Venter met a second time and a third.
And finally they came, if not to a meeting of the minds, at least to a workable understanding--and a framework for this week's joint announcement. After more than a decade of dreaming, planning and heroic number crunching, both groups have deciphered essentially all the 3.1 billion biochemical "letters" of human DNA, the coded instructions for building and operating a fully functional human.
It's impossible to overstate the significance of this achievement. Armed with the genetic code, scientists can now start teasing out the secrets of human health and disease at the molecular level--secrets that will lead at the very least to a revolution in diagnosing and treating everything from Alzheimer's to heart disease to cancer, and more. In a matter of decades, the world of medicine will be utterly transformed, and history books will mark this week as the ceremonial start of the genomic era.