The trade bill that the U.S. Senate is expected to vote on today may well be a Trojan horse for one of the most controversial initiatives in biomedical research.

A proposed amendment to the Omnibus Trade and Competition Act of 1987 calls for a multi-billion-dollar project to identify and locate on a biological map the more than 3 billion bits of genetic information that form the human blueprint of life -- what scientists call the human genome.

With surprising speed in the politics of science, Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) has started to convert an idea that biologists have been debating for nearly two years into national policy. On July 10, Domenici introduced legislation to establish a National Policy Board on the Human Genome, giving the nine national laboratories run by the Department of Energy a central role in the biggest genetic mapping project ever conceived.

The gene-mapping proposal quickly moved to the Senate floor without any hearings or committee reports. If included in the trade bill today, it could become law by September, providing the legislative package is approved by the Senate-House conference committee and is signed by the president.

Several observers think the legislation has a reasonable chance of passing because the bill addresses the central issue of improving U.S. international economic competitiveness, especially with the Japanese, in several high technology areas, including research in superconductors and semiconductors.

The Domenici proposal to map the human genome already has begun gathering the support of several senators, including Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Sen. Lawton Chiles (D-Fla.), who both were considering similar initiatives.

Domenici also reportedly has the support of White House chief of staff Howard Baker, a former senator from Tennessee, where one of the national laboratories that would participate in the new initiative is located.

According to the current plan for mapping the human genome, a library of thousands of pieces of DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, the chemical essence of the gene, would be constructed to represent all 3 billion DNA subunits found on the 23 chromosomes in every human cell (most body cells carry two sets of the 23 chromosomes).

All known genes would be mapped onto chromosomes, and the relationship between genes would be identified. Eventually, all 3 billion subunits would be put in sequence so that the position of every bit of genetic information in the human body would be known. Currently, less than 1 percent of the human genome has been sequenced.

Such a massive project could revolutionize biological research, many scientists say. Knowing the body's genetic blueprint could lead to new pharmaceuticals and provide unprecedented insight into, and perhaps cures for, diseases ranging from cancer to diabetes to aging as well as the more than 3,000 hereditary diseases, such as cystic fibrosis, Huntington's disease and sickle cell anemia. To get such a project under way, the bill would establish a national policy board made up of the secretary of energy, the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), director of the congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), the director of the National Science Foundation (NSF), and representatives of the Human Genome Consortium, a group of university, private industry and government agencies -- such as NIH, NSF and the national laboratories. The chairmanship would rotate among the board members.

Initially, Domenici envisioned the policy board as a part of DOE. But now it is more likely to move to the White House under the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the president's science advisory group.

The genome policy board, however, would not actually do any research. Instead, it would supervise the activities of the Human Genome Consortium, which would actually perform the work.

The national labs, such as the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, both of which already are heavily involved in genetic mapping projects, are expected to contribute expertise in computers and robotics, in addition to other technology and machine-building skills.

Kennedy and Chiles both are interested in seeing a biotechnology information center established at the National Library of Medicine on the NIH campus, to handle the huge amount of information that would come out of such a project, and to make it quickly and widely available. Rep. Claude Pepper (D-Fla.) had introduced similar legislation in the House to set up a biotechnology information center at the national library.

Domenici's proposal caught many in the scientific community by surprise. The senator became interested in gene-mapping by accident. He was trying to find ways to apply the research developed in DOE's laboratories -- two of which are in his state -- to commercial projects. When he asked the experts what areas the labs should focus on, the answer came back: semiconductors, superconductors -- and the human genome.

The meeting with the experts convinced Domenici that the time was right for the biomedical project. But while Domenici and others think gene-mapping is a great idea, some scientists think it is a waste of time.

Variously described as "the holy grail of biology" and a biological equivalent of the Apollo mission to the moon, the human genome project is controversial. Some scientists argue that the benefits and knowledge gained would not be worth the costs -- estimated in the billions of dollars -- and the potential disruption to other research already under way.

"At least 90 to 95 percent of the genome is evolutionary junk," Dr. Robert A. Weinberg of the Whitehead Institute of Biomedical Science in Cambridge, Mass., said in an interview last month. "And of the 5 percent that isn't junk, you are not going to know what it means for decades."

Domenici, in an interview last week, acknowledged that there are questions about the usefulness of the information gained from such a project, but said, "I have now become convinced that while there are problems in what do you end up doing with it, they end up paling when you know somebody else is going to do it, and probably the Japanese."

There has been little response from NIH leaders to the rapidly moving legislation. Dr. James B. Wyngaarden, NIH director, is on vacation and not available for comment. Others deeply involved in genetics studies and discussions about the larger project have declined to comment on the bill.

Even before Domenici launched this bill, a number of federal agencies have been looking at such a project for more than a year.

In an interview last month, Wyngaarden, who personally is very interested in the genome project, said: "We have been in this {field of genetic research} in a very large way, and intend to stay in it. We have spent some $300 million {a year} in genetic studies, that including mapping and sequencings. Some $70 million are spent on human projects."

But Wyngaarden knows his constituency; the scientists working alone in labs across the country are threatened by such a big-science project. "The scientific community at this time favors approaching this massive project through a carefully planned, step wise effort rather than a mass attack," Wyngaarden said earlier this year in his testimony before the House Appropriations subcommittee overseeing the NIH budget. The issue is money. Scientists don't want to see it diverted from other areas of research. Wyngaarden said he would pursue the genome project "if we have the resources to do it." NIH's leaders, however, have been criticized for waiting for the money to drop into their laps.

As yet, the funding source for the genome policy board is unresolved, but Domenici said it probably would come from general revenues.

The Department of Energy already has been aggressively pursuing the project. There are existing projects at Los Alamos and Livermore, and DOE has been considering an accelerated program for more than a year.

"We are eliminating the debate by simply doing it," said Dr. Charles DeLisi, director of DOE's office of health and environmental research.

But now the whole field of gene-mapping research could be redefined if the National Policy Board on the Human Genome becomes a reality. "Domenici-Kennedy proposals always have a good chance of getting 51 votes," said one Kennedy staffer, "especially when it has to do with scientific research and economic competitiveness, which is a very hot issue this year."