In 1989, the brightest minds in various fields of science, medicine, and engineering, came together under the direction of initially Dr. James Watson to decode the human genetic code. This first-of-its-kind collaboration became known as the Human Genome Project and has since achieved colossal milestones in the field of genetics. The main goal for these scientists was to sequence the whole human genetic code, which basically means “to decipher the chemical sequence of the complete human genetic material (i.e., the entire genome), identify all 50,000 to 100,000 genes contained within the genome, and provide research tools to analyze all this genetic information.”
To truly appreciate The Human Genome Project, it is essential to take you back to the bare facts and basics of genetics. Please don’t yawn or go back a page! This is not only very important, but also happens to be very exciting! The true miracle of life in fact! It is true that we all understand the general concept of DNA and genetics; information we inherit from our parents, but let’s really get to grips with the ABCs, as only then will we have reason to gasp in amazement at the human body and the great strides scientists have achieved so far in understanding it. So, what are genes? What does DNA stand for? What is a genetic code? What does it mean to decipher it? And most importantly, what does all this mean to me and you, to our children, and to the many generations to come?
Understanding DNA and Its Characteristics
Let’s start with DNA, or ‘Deoxyribonucleic acid’ if you’re a scientist or that way inclined. Which perhaps explains why most of us know it as just DNA. If you’re asked to think of DNA, your mind will most likely think of an image of two strands that spiral around each other, a shape otherwise known as ‘the double Helix.’ It is an acid that is made of two linked strands on a backbone of alternating sugar and phosphate group, and attached to each sugar, is one of the four bases: adenine (A), cytosine (C), guanine (G) or thymine (T). To simplify those bases, you can think of them as digits, just like a binary code which has two digits, 0 and 1, DNA has 4 digits, A, C, G and T. So, the way those digits are lined up on those strands, means a different code. This code is the message of information that determines how a cell is to develop and grow, basically determining who we are; what we look like, how we behave, and the state of our health.
It is extraordinary that we share 99.9% of this code, which means that only 0.1% of our DNA carries the variations that are between us! For example, if you have blue eyes, it just means that you have some variations in your ‘OCA2 gene’ which reduce the amount of P protein produced, and the less of this protein, the less melanin you have in the iris, and lower the melanin, the lighter the color of your eyes.
Unlocking The Power of Human Genome Decoding
“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 that says this is the way you should prepare this child’s healthcare. It’s exhilarating!”, said Former President of the USA, Bill Clinton. This statement encompasses the importance of decoding the human genome for the whole human race, as the 0.1% variation between our genetic code does not only determine the color of our eyes, our height, and if we have curly or straight hair, but it is responsible for nearly all human medical conditions, including the 4,000 or so heritable diseases that are passed onto us from our parents, as well as other gene mutations that we develop throughout our lifetime from outside influences, such as some cancers. So, understanding the genetic code enables scientists to help people suffering from certain diseases, and perhaps stop diseases from happening in the first place.
Has the Human Genome Project been a success? Well, it was completed in 2003 with 92% of the human genome sequenced, and it took another 19 years for the other 8% to be sequenced. In April 2022, just last year, the final sequence of the human genome was completed! Roughly around 3 billion bases (remember the four letters?) of DNA make up the whole human genome. “Truly finishing the human genome sequence was like putting on a new pair of glasses,” says consortium co-chair Dr. Adam Phillippy, whose group at NHGRI led the effort. “Now that we can clearly see everything, we are one step closer to understanding what it all means.”
Scientific and Technological Progress In Motion
Understanding what it all means is precisely the key needed to begin the next phase of genetic research, which will one day mean that when we are born, doctors will be able to assess our future health from a DNA test, and not just let our parents know that we have a 65% chance of developing bowel cancer at some point in our life, but to recommend risk-reducing strategies. Even those ailments triggered by external variations like diet and lifestyle throughout our lives, scientists will one day be able to manage us from getting sick.
We are still some way away, but scientific advances are progressing at a very fast pace thanks to the huge advances in technology which make it easier to pinpoint those particular mutations and their switches. Until we reach that happy prospect, let’s take our hats off to those amazing minds behind the Human Genome Project, and salute their tremendous hard work for the good of the whole human race.