The Human Genome Project, 10 Years On

International Herald Tribune, April 16, 2013 | Go to article overview

The Human Genome Project, 10 Years On


Eric D. Green, director of the National Human Genome Research Center at the National Institutes of Health, spoke about what has been accomplished.

Eight years of work, thousands of researchers around the world, $1 billion spent -- and finally it was done. On April 14, 2003, a decade ago this week, scientists announced that they had completed the Human Genome Project, compiling a list of the three billion letters of genes that make up what they considered to be a sort of everyperson's DNA.

To commemorate the anniversary, Eric D. Green, director of the National Human Genome Research Center at the National Institutes of Health, spoke about what has been accomplished, what it means and what is coming next. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.

Q. Take us back to that day 10 years ago. Whose genome was sequenced? And why would anyone want to know the genome sequence of some random person? Aren't we all unique?

The idea all along was not to sequence a person's genome but to develop a resource. It would be the sequence of a hypothetical genome, a reference genome. It was meant to represent humanity.

Q. What does that mean? You used human DNA, right? Why was the genome hypothetical?

The way it was done then, we were reading out the letters of the genome, one page at a time, and at the end of the day different pages came from different people. Each page was a stretch of DNA, about 100,000 bases long out of the total of three billion bases (the four chemicals that make up DNA). The genome of one person, an anonymous blood donor in Buffalo, New York, was the majority because the guy who was the expert at making a big DNA library -- the equivalent of those pages -- was at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, which is in Buffalo.

Q. But if that hypothetical genome was made up of bits and pieces of DNA sequences from lots of different people, what good was it?

It was a reference that could be used for further research. People differ in only one out of 1,000 bases, so that reference genome is 99.9 percent identical to any person's genome. We used that tool to build sort of a highway map. We could go through it and add information about what was important.

The best analogy is to a GPS in a car. …

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