Mapping Ourselves: The Human Genome Project
By Glen Hiemstra, 2000
The Human Genome Project was started ten years ago, coordinated by the Department of Energy and the National Institute of Health. At the time the project had seemingly unachievable goals, projected to be reached 15 to 20 years later and only if the necessary technological advancements were made. Yet on June 26th, 2000, nearly five years ahead of schedule, it was announced that the project has produced a ‘working draft’ of the human genome, mapping the entire genetic make-up of a human being. The working draft depicts the layout of 100,000 human genes along with the sequence of the nearly 3 billion DNA base pairs, effectively changing the face of biological knowledge and research as we know it.
What began in 1990 as a 15 year, $3 billion international scientific project has advanced faster than anyone originally hoped. In late 1999, the first human chromosome was sequenced in its entirety, and only 6 months later the entire genome was on its way to being unraveled and pieced back together. Along with American universities and government sponsored and private laboratories performing human genome research around the country, at least 18 other nations have developed labs for human genome research and are participating in the project. These include Australia, China, the United Kingdom, Brazil and the majority of the European Union.
The human genome itself is comprised of the 24 sets of chromosomes found in every human, and on an even smaller scale the DNA that makes up those chromosomes. The daunting task of the Human Genome Project was to take the two strands of DNA that are spiraled together in a double helix and held together with what are known as complementary base pairs, split the DNA strands apart, and record the sequence of the base pairs. Base pair sequences hold the instructions for all cellular functions. Sets of base pairs make up genes, the set of instructions that design every individual’s unique characteristics.
The working draft includes a first draft of the genome (or base pair) sequencing with 85% of the sequence assembled, and provides scientists with a 97% of the human genetic code. There are still many gaps and inaccuracies left in the map. The goal for 2003 is to have a complete (99.9% accurate) DNA reference sequence.
The potential uses for these discoveries are staggering. Though there has been some debate over how to publish the findings, an agreement has been reached to make the DNA sequence freely and broadly available through the Web in the hopes of stimulating continued research. The discoveries made through the project will have dramatic affects on molecular medicine, microbial genomics, risk assessment, forensics, and agricultural business. Testing, diagnosis and treatment of disease will be made infinitely more precise and individualized, eliminating painful side effects from drugs, preventing pre-disposed diseases, even eliminating the genes that make someone prone to cancer, Alzheimer’s, or diabetes.
The project also has implications for the environment. The Microbial Genome Program, spawned from the Human Project, intends to sequence the genomes of bacteria, potentially enabling the manufacture of new energy sources, new methods of toxic waste cleanup, and detection of pollutants. Identifying critical microorganisms may aid in maintaining or even restoring the stability of the world’s ecosystems. This knowledge also could greatly help the fledgling industry of biomanufacturing, producing nontoxic chemicals and enzymes, improving existing industry and creating new outlets. Agriculture could benefit from crops and livestock more resistant to disease, pesticide-free food, edible vaccines, and new environmental clean up uses for plants.
The 21st century has been deemed the century of biology, and the achievements of the Human Genome Project mark the first milestone. Medicine, industry, agriculture, and forensics are just a few areas that have already been dramatically improved by the discoveries made. Continued support for this type of research may speed advancements even more, allowing the next generation to have a deeper understanding of our biological existence.
Glen Hiemstra is a futurist speaker, author, consultant, blogger, internet video host and Founder of Futurist.com. To arrange for a speech contact Futurist.com.
Photos from the DOE Human Genome Program
The Ultimate Human Genome Project Information Site
National Human Genome Research Institute
DOE Joint Genome Institute