The human genome is much like the American West of the 1850s: Everyone wants a piece of the pie. Similar to gold prospectors of 150 years ago, biotech and pharmaceutical companies, and even universities, are frantically searching for the nuggets of gold that will help them find the mother lode—a gene whose function is sufficiently marketable to make all of the preliminary research worthwhile.

Companies that do strike gold get to introduce new classes of drugs to the market. Others hope to make genetic tests that can identify people at risk for disease, or to help companies target their drugs to the genetic subpopulation that responds best. Because only time will tell which genes are useful and which are not, universities and companies are taking no chances, and are staking claims to as many of the recently revealed genetic properties as they can identify. This approach, however, is producing a...

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