The two scientists stood shoulder to shoulder with President Bill Clinton in the East Room of the White House, the same room where the American explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark unfurled their map of the Northwest Territories for Thomas Jefferson. Like Lewis and Clark 200 years before them, the scientists were explorers of a newly discovered landscape and they, too, had just completed their own draft map of an unknown world.
Francis Collins and Craig Venter had been, in fact, rivals in the race to decode the human genome, but they had been cajoled into making a very public "truce" in a joint transatlantic press conference with Tony Blair in Downing Street. Venter, the leader of the privately run project, and Collins, the government scientist, stood together to explain that humanity was now able to read, for the first time, the genetic map describing the detailed coordinates of our DNA code.
Some have likened the human genome to a genetic blueprint; some describe it as the digital recipe for making a human being; others simply refer to it as the Book of Life. In fact, no metaphor quite fits the human genome, an encoded message comprised of some 3 billion "letters" of the four-letter genetic alphabet arranged in a well-defined sequence.
It was determining this precise sequence that took Collins and Venter - and thousands of other scientists - more than 10 years and $3bn to complete. It was a scientific magnum opus, the Apollo programme of biology, comparable to putting a man on the Moon. One British scientist compared the achievement to the invention of the wheel, arguing that the genome was an even greater feat.
Standing in the East Room exactly a decade ago, Bill Clinton said that the completion of the international Human Genome Project meant scientists were now learning the language in which God created life, while Tony Blair in Downing Street said that it represented a 21st- century revolution in medical science whose implications will far surpass the discovery of antibiotics in the 20th century. The human genome was going to change the way medicine is practised. It was going to reveal the hidden hand of cards dealt by our genes so we could cheat our genetic destiny.
Francis Collins, now director of the US National Institutes of Health, made his own predictions for 2010 as he gave his PowerPoint presentation to the world. He predicted gene tests would be available for a dozen medical conditions, that doctors and clinics would practise genetic medicine, that pre-implantation genetic diagnosis of IVF embryos would be widely available, and that genetic discrimination would be banned - at least in the US.
MORE LAB WORK NEEDED
Behind all the hyperbole, it was clear the human genome was going to tell us things we could only dream about. It had the potential to reveal our genetic predisposition to disease early enough for us to do something about it. It could allow drugs to be designed and selected on the basis of a person's genetic make-up rather than relying simply on a patient's symptoms. Such genome scanning would avoid the side-effects of taking drugs, improve their efficacy, and lead to a bright, new future of "personalised medicine", where treatment is based on an individual's genome rather than a therapy based on a one-size-fits-all approach.
Ten years on from that momentous occasion, the reality for many people has been far less exciting, as Collins accepts. The consequences for clinical medicine have so far been modest, he admits. "It is fair to say that the Human Genome Project has not yet directly affected the healthcare of most individuals," he says. Venter, too, accepts that "there is still some way to go before this capability can have a significant effect on medicine and health".
This is not to say that there have been no advances. Far from it. Scientists in many disciplines have …