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[BEIJING] Chinese scientists started work this week on creating a 'haplotype' of the human genome as part of an international project to identify the genes behind common diseases.

The project aims to explore the 0.01 per cent of human DNA that varies between individuals. Where such variations in DNA sequences on the same chromosome and are inherited in blocks, they are known as 'haplotypes'.

Scientists hope that by creating a haplotype map – known as a 'HapMap' – of the human genome, they will better understand how genetic variations affect an individual's risk of diseases such as asthma, cancer, diabetes and heart disease.

On Monday, researchers collected the first blood samples for the project from students at the Beijing Normal University. China will be responsible for 10 per cent of the project, which is being carried out with the United States, Japan, the United Kingdom, and Canada.

Chinese participation in the project is being led by the Beijing Genomics Institute and will be funded solely by the government. The entire project – which will involve examining genetic samples from populations in Africa, Asia and Europe – is expected to take three years to complete.

The HapMap project is distinct from the Human Genome Diversity Project, a controversial attempt more than a decade ago to use genetic sampling to determine relationships of the world's ethnic groups, which was eventually shelved after protests that it might lead to exploitation of vulnerable populations.

This is the second time that China will be involved in an international genome programme. The first was the Human Genome Project, which resulted in the publishing of the draft sequence of the human genome in 2001.