Benefits Of The Human Genome Project

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The Human Genome Project

Imagine you’re on the phone, trying to give someone directions from a map they have in hand, except that the only thing on the map is roads drawn in the shape of lines. No buildings illustrated. No symbols drawn. No named locations. How hard do you think it would be to get to some common ground you can both work up from to reach the destination you’re trying to describe? Even then, can you guarantee that no misunderstandings happened and that you’re both talking with the exact same path in mind? This was the state of scientists studying human DNA until the late 1980s. There was no contention among them, and anybody who wanted to do research on a certain gene had to first experimentally determine what its location was, what traits it affected, and what its function was, even if the exact same experiments were conducted by someone else before. This was obviously a huge waste of time and caused great inconvenience to genealogists.

In all multicellular living organisms, including humans, genetic information is inherited from the parents, and stored in the form of DNA. DNA is made up of even smaller parts called base pairs. Different sequences of base pairs code for different amino acids, which are the building block of proteins. DNA appears in a cell nucleus as a double-stranded, ladder-like structure. These strands are convoluted tightly and packed into what we call chromosomes. A chromosome is made up of segments of DNA called genes. An average human has between 20000 and 23000 genes, and most of these genes control a certain trait the organism has, multiple traits, or contribute along with other genes in controlling a single trait.[ REFERENCE]

Sequencing DNA means determining the exact order of every base pair. As on (the NIH website, n.d.,), human chromosomes range in size from about 50,000,000 to 300,000,000 base pairs.

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In 1984, the idea of having a unified model for the human genes, with their locations and exact orders on chromosomes – also known as the genome – first came into light. Six years later, twenty research institutions from six different countries came together, and began working on what was later called the Human Genome Project (HGP).[REFERENCE] Famous polymath Leonardo da Vinci’s “the Vitruvian Man” was selected as a logo to the project, and the projected formally kicked off! 270 individuals were selected from different races to be gene donors. The male ones donated sperm, while the female ones donated blood. According to (Dr. R.C. Dubey, 2004), DNA samples were taken from Yoruba people in Ibadan, Nigeria; Japanese people in Tokyo; Han Chinese in Beijing; and the French Centre d’Etude du Polymorphisme Humain (CEPH) resource, which consisted of residents of the United States having ancestry from Western and Northern Europe.

The project started off with two early goals (Chial, H. (2008)):

  1. Building genetic and physical maps of the human and mouse genomes.
  2. Sequencing the smaller yeast and worm genomes as a test run for sequencing the larger, more complex human genome (IHGSC, 2001)

Once the sequencing for worms and yeast proved successful, the experiments continued for the more complex organisms in full force.

It took the collaboration 13 years of constant work to finish sequencing the DNA of humans from different races and locations, only to come to a shocking finding: Humans are all identical for 99.9% of their DNA. The remaining 0.1% is what makes all the diversity we see in humans. Another startling discovery was that humans were genetically very close to other organisms like yeast, a fact which sounded incomprehensible at that time.

Following the completion of the project, and the beginning of the age of internet which happened concurrently, genetics transformed from a field where every scientist worked alone on individual results, into a big library, where every researcher contributed their work, until genetics grew to what it is today.

The HGP affected the field of biotechnology significantly, that one can even go as far to say biotechnology took a big turn after the HGP was completed. The most prevalent change that occurred was perhaps the turning of biotechnology into a team-oriented field.

Another huge benefit was that it altered our view toward genetics. We now know, after sequencing the DNA of the fruit-fly, the worm, the mouse, and many other organisms, that the similarities between the DNA of these seemingly different species and the DNA of humans are much more than what we expected. Because of the 80% similarity between their DNA sequence and that of humans, mice are nowadays used to test medicines which affect genes, like Fluorouracil (Drugs list, Genelex, n.d.), one of the most successful chemotherapy drugs.

Once the human genome was successfully sequenced, the sequencing know-how has turned to other organisms, like bacteria. Our horizons were widened, and the future of the field was set alight. Biotechnology is one of the most dominant fields of science and research today and will probably continue to be!

Along with all the benefits from the HGP, however, came some ethical concerns.


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