Human Genome Project

Decoding the Blueprint of Life

The Human Genome Project (HGP), costing about $3 billion, was among the most ambitious scientific endeavors ever pursued. Within a decade, thousands of scientists from around the globe collaborated to identify all 3 billion DNA units comprising the human genome. This achievement, compared by HGP researchers to the Apollo moon landing and the splitting of the atom, marked the beginning of “the era of the genome.” They predicted that the genome sequence would lay a solid foundation for developing science and medicine in the 21st century.

The HGP was first proposed by Renato Dulbecco, an Italian–American virologist and 1975 Nobel laureate in Medicine. In a 1984 article, Dulbecco argued that understanding the human genome sequence would be crucial for cancer research.

Renato Dulbecco, c. 1966

Initially met with skepticism, notably from another 1975 Nobel laureate in Medicine, David Baltimore, who predicted it would take a century to sequence the human genome, a sentiment echoed by many. This prediction would have held true if the sequencing technology had remained at its 1980s level. However, rapid technological advancements significantly accelerated the process, compressing what was anticipated to be a century’s worth of work into just ten years.

Despite its ambitious goals, the scientific community acknowledged the project’s feasibility while debating its merits. Amidst these controversies, the HGP commenced in 1990, led by American geneticist Francis Collins and supported by the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). It quickly garnered global support, drawing scientists worldwide to contribute to this groundbreaking effort.

Yeah, it’s true we’re all dealt a set of cards. But it’s also true that it’s up to us to figure out how to play the hand.

Francis S. Collins

Before diving into the details, let’s clarify some key genetic terms. DNA, the molecule that carries our genetic blueprint, is composed of four types of smaller molecules known as bases: adenine (A), thymine (T), cytosine (C), and guanine (G). The sequence of these bases acts as instructions for building life’s essential components. A gene, a DNA segment, directs the assembly of one such component, like a protein. On a larger scale, a genome encompasses an organism’s entire set of DNA instructions, including all its genes.

The human genome contains 3 billion of these bases. Interestingly, about 99.9% of the genome is identical in all humans, with the remaining 0.1%—equivalent to 3 million bases—showing variability. Variations in the genome at specific locations, where the base sequence can vary from one person to another, such as an A in one person and a G in another, are termed single nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs. The specific SNP variant an individual possesses is referred to as their genotype, contributing to the unique genetic makeup of each person.

Chemical structure of DNA

Chemical structure of DNA

The HGP represented an enormous global collaboration involving twenty research centers and universities across six countries, all united by a single objective: to sequence the entire human genome, determining the precise order of all 3 billion bases it comprises.

Sequencing the human genome is akin to solving a complex puzzle. The process begins with collecting a biological sample, like saliva or blood, from which DNA is extracted. Scientists then replicate this DNA, breaking it into numerous smaller, overlapping fragments. By applying a series of chemical reactions, the sequence of bases in each fragment is identified. This fragmentation is necessary because the chemical reactions are limited to reading short strands of DNA, generally less than 1,000 bases in length.

The real challenge lies in piecing together these fragments into their original sequence, a task complicated by the genome’s sheer size and the presence of repetitive sequences. These repetitions, akin to puzzle pieces with nearly identical shapes, make it difficult to accurately reconstruct the genome.

Another key aim of the HGP was to count the number of genes within the human genome. Early predictions varied, with some estimates suggesting there could be up to 100,000 genes. However, the project revealed that humans have only between 20,000 and 25,000 genes, a figure that surprised many and highlighted an important insight: the complexity of an organism doesn’t directly correlate with its gene count. Indeed, other organisms, like rice and water fleas, possess more genes than humans, challenging previous assumptions about genetic complexity.

Location of DNA in eukaryotic cell chromosomes

Location of DNA in eukaryotic cell chromosomes

In 1998, Celera Genomics, led by American biochemist and former NIH scientist J. Craig Venter, entered the race to sequence the human genome, challenging the public initiative of the HGP. The competition was intense, primarily because of the lucrative potential for patenting parts of the genome sequence, viewed as a pharmaceutical goldmine.

Nonetheless, the draft genome was unveiled on June 25, 2000, with subsequent releases of increasingly precise DNA “maps” until the project concluded in 2003 with the publication of the complete human genome. Yet, about 8% of the genome, referred to as “dark matter,” remained unmapped. This gap was gradually filled over the next two decades, thanks to the evolution of gene sequencing into a fast, automated, and cost-effective process.

The HGP was founded on two main principles. First, it was internationally collaborative, inviting participation from across the globe to transcend national boundaries and leverage a diverse range of scientific approaches. Additionally, it mandated that all sequenced genome data be made freely and publicly available within 24 hours of its assembly, ensuring that both academic and industrial scientists could engage with the data immediately, fostering rapid advancements and innovative discoveries.

This open-access approach has propelled a multitude of groundbreaking discoveries in the years following the HGP. Research has revealed interbreeding between humans and Neanderthals, identified genes responsible for cancers and melanomas, and facilitated the development of new medications for various conditions, including cystic fibrosis and asthma. The legacy of the HGP underscores the immense value of collaborative and open science, demonstrating the far-reaching benefits of collective endeavors in genomics.

Editors’ finds

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Masterpiece spotlight

American Gothic by Grant Wood, 1930

American Gothic by Grant Wood, 1930

Words of wisdom

“Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” —George Bernard Shaw

“An early-morning walk is a blessing for the whole day.” —Henry David Thoreau

“Believe nothing you hear, and only one half that you see.” —Edgar Allan Poe

“Tact is the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip.” —Winston Churchill


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