April 25 – Being Human

Today’s Factismal: The Human Genome Project finished decoding the DNA of humans eleven years ago today.

The human genome, the combination of the DNA in our genes, is a fascinating thing. Not only does it determine such mundane things as our eye color and when we’ll go bald, it pairs with environment to decide who will get cancer and who is immune to the common cold. Not surprisingly, something this important has been studied in great detail. But it wasn’t until 1990 that we tried to do something about it on more than a piece-meal basis.

The reason for that is because until recently it had been very difficult to decipher genes. At the time that the program started, sequencing a gene (that is, determining what order the four letters of the DNA alphabet appear in and how often)  would cost upwards of $10,000. Given that they expected to find more than 140,000 genes in the human genome and over 30 billion base pairs (those “letters” in the genes) and would have to do it for several different people in order to identify common mutations, the project was given $3 billion in funding and fifteen years to do their work.

The cost to sequence a gene has dropped dramatically since the start of the Human Genome Project (Chart courtesy National Human Genome Research Institute)

The cost to sequence a gene has dropped dramatically since the start of the Human Genome Project
(Chart courtesy National Human Genome Research Institute)

But the one thing that is sure to spur progress is actually doing something. Though sequencing genes was very expensive and time consuming at the start of the project, by the end the cost had dropped to less than $10,000 per gene and the time needed had dropped from months to days. As a result, the project was able to publish its preliminary report on April 25, 2003, two years ahead of schedule. (Part of that was because it turned out that they were very wrong about the number of genes and base pairs; we now know that humans have about 20,500 genes and 3 billion base pairs.)

And that progress continues today. It now costs less than a dime to sequence a gene, and the results can often be seen within a day. And thanks to the work of the Human Genome Project, we are beginning to make progress on understanding how environment and genome interact to create healthy people.

If you’d like to help keep the progress coming, then why not volunteer as a study subject for the Personal Genome Project? They want to do for individuals what the Human Genome Project did for the species; with your help, they just might.
http://www.personalgenomes.org/

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