Lessons from the Human Genome Project


in 1989 a group of scientists was

assembled to decode the human genome

under the direction of dr. James Watson

one of Watson's big motivations here was

to try to recruit the best and brightest

from many different disciplines biology

but also physics chemistry engineering

because all of those would have to get

together if this was going to work

many of the biologists and I loved them

dearly of course we're dragged into it

kicking or screaming in the beginning

because they they fail to see the

tremendous value that such an enterprise

would provide the field the talent

turned out to be all over the world so

you have to basically make it possible

for those bright minds to get engaged

where they are they're not going to all

move to join this effort genomics has

fundamentally changed the way we do

science it brought the notion of team

science and collaboration to biology

here's think about collaboration it's

also intensely competitive each person

wants to achieve something personal you

know they want to make their hips you

know on the problem but then immediately

they want to share it with the other and

the other learns immediately and so you

you ratchet each other up from the

beginning of the genome project there is

a fairly strong sense of enthusiasm in

the public sector the private and

academia we had lots of support from

Republicans partly because Newt Gingrich

was interested in science and I knew it

there's no partisan the difference in

everybody wanting to live as long as

they can I think there's a lesson there

it isn't a being the monolithic project

it was a big challenge but it brought

people together and I think that's what

we have to do in the future


when the Human Genome Project was

started it's important to note that

technology of sequencing was not

developed yet so it's in a sense a

project that was launched with a wing

and a prayer

we couldn't sequence it at that time

this machines with nothing like fast

enough there were no machines even it

was sequencing was done by hand I

thought we might have to do it brute

force it I was quite ly prepared to use

the old-fashioned technology just

because it was important they get it

done there are a lot of things you know

make life easier that just hadn't been

invented yet

it'd be a hundred year project like

monks working the copy a book at best


bit by bit we got into more and more

large-scale sequencing but the

sequencing is enormously important

because it provides the possibility of

searching by computer when I showed up

at the Washington University one day

with a computer terminal under my arm

people looked at it and said what are

you gonna do with that this is a

genetics department genomes were

supposed to be too complex to be able to

reassemble them in the computer without

computers we simply wouldn't be dead in

the water


computers and genomics were made for

each other

genetic information is digital it's like

binary code if this happens to use four

digits instead of two

it is amazingly accurate and that's what

biology gets from digital information

the Human Genome Project contributed a

cultural change about data sharing

because the genome project was about

sharing data almost immediately while it

seems obvious now it wasn't obvious then

that required significant effort I think

I'm quite lucky as a scientist because I

grew up always sharing data the

community around me the genomics

community the worm and fly communities

as well it's just a default that you're

gonna share everything you're gonna

share that code you're gonna show

everything by publishing but you're

gonna show before publishing and share

half-cooked ideas and in fact this is a

wonderful thing it's liberating that

would then virtually criminal to try to

hoard discoveries that meant the

difference in life and death and people

this is information which will be using

for centuries the sooner we get it and

everybody has access to it who wants it

the faster we can move in terms of

understanding how life works and how

disease occurs patients invest a certain

degree of fear about genetics who's

going to find this out how will it be

used against me a lot of the ethical and

social considerations that were

struggling with today really have

historical roots in the early 1900's in

the United States where we had many

states that had laws that allowed us to

forcibly sterilized people and prevent

them from having children based on

whether we as a society felt that they

were genetically fit so at the beginning

of the human genome project we got it

right a brain in the social sciences

the ethicists the lawyers and we now

have helped to provide a whole

generation of scientists that are

focusing on the ethical and social

issues of genomics the sequencing the

human genome was a monumental

achievement decades of work thousands of

scientists billions of dollars and we

get this first road map for what makes

up the human genome it's an incredibly

exciting moment at the same time it's

just the beginning of what's really a

much longer voyage and let's again be

audacious but let's not be unrealistic

about what's possible I think the next

10 years are gonna see some exciting

developments and genomics particularly

those we start to use genomic

information as part of routine medical

care and that'll be applied to dealing

with diseases like cancer hypertension

diabetes and Alzheimer's disease I dream

of the day when every young mother

brings a young girl or a young boy home

from the hospital with a little gene

card and they said this is the way you

should prepare this child's healthcare


it's exhilarating