Human Genome Project

One of the biggest scientific research projects in history is the Human Genome Project (HGP).  This is an attempt to map how the very basics of life fit and work together to create human DNA.  Knowing this may help us better understand human evolution and could provide significant medical benefits, such as the development of molecular medicine.

The roots of the HGP are in late 1984 when several US government departments held a meeting to discuss the possibility of studying the human genome.  They had hoped to use DNA analysis to examine possible genetic changes in atomic bomb survivors.  The government approved the project in 1988.  Two years later, it began in earnest as the government published a plan to map out the human genome over the next five years.  The entire project was estimated to take fifteen years total to complete.

The project’s scope was very wide and included international partnerships with many countries, including the United Kingdom, Japan, Australia, and France.  The HGP was not only established for the purposes of strictly scientific research but also to examine the legal and ethical questions about the use of DNA.  A separate program, ELSI (Ethical Legal and Social Implications) was launched in 1990 for this purpose.  The HGP’s other goals include developing and improving technology as well as collecting and managing information (often called bioinformatics).

The duration and scale of the HGP are not surprising, especially considering the complex nature of DNA sequencing.  This is the process of understanding how DNA is arranged and organized at the atomic level.  DNA contains the genetic information that determines how life develops.  The basic units within DNA are base pairs of adenine, thymine, cytosine, and guanine.  Because of the many millions of base pairs in human DNA and the limits of technology, DNA sequencing can take a long time to perform.

The HGP was completed in 2003.  The first study about the HGP was published a year later.  This indicated that the HGP was very accurate in its sequencing attempts.  The genome sequence is freely available on the Internet for download.  Although the project has finished, scientists have barely begun to grasp the practical and scientific implications of all this new information.  It is possible that this could lead to potential breakthroughs in areas of medical research for disease prevention and cures.  It may also shape how scientists examine issues in evolution.  For example, they could use the HGP information to look into how life changed over millions of years at a molecular level.