The Human Genome Project

In 1953, Watson and Crick unveiled the secrets of DNA with their discovery of the double helix, a structure of two strands of genetic material wound together in a tight formation within our cells. DNA, the blueprint to what makes us, well us, was now a new chapter in the pursuit to unlock the secrets of the human genome. Now that the secret of how genetic material was passed on, from generation to generation, a new question began to formulate. Would it be possible to map the DNA of a human being? And what would the implications be in having a complete map of the genome?

To answer this question, we must fast forward to 1990 when the Department of Energy, the National Institute of Health, and various international partners, set out to map the genome using a process known as DNA sequencing. This is the process in which researchers can breakdown a genome into discrete segments and identify the nucleotide base pairs, which are the different components in DNA, to know the correct order of the genetic material. Thus, the Human Genome Project was formed and its mission was to identify the human genome so as to diagnose, and discover, new solutions to diseases. For over 13 years, and $2.7 billion dollars in federal funds, researchers mapped the human genome to identify over 1,800 genes related to disease. One vital aspect of this project was that the breakthrough data,  within the human genome, would be made available to the public. Not only did this allow the free flow of information but helped advance research in other fields. This included mapping out the genomes for several other species of animal, including mice, fruit flies, and flatworms. These genome’s proved vital for those using these organisms in their models for human application.

Some examples of the success for the Human Genome Project have been advances in over 2,000 genetic screenings for diseases. In addition, over 350 biotechnology products have been developed are in the clinical trial phase of testing for those with genetic disease. In addition, the efforts to sequence the Human Genome have allowed researchers to develop new, and efficient, ways to bring down the costs of DNA sequencing and numerous companies are now available to offer this as a service for scientists in the molecular biology field. Furthermore, companies, like 23andme, now offer services to allow individuals to have their genome sequenced so that a personalized profile can be created to allow the user to view their ancestry.

The success of this project highlights the fact that investments in government Research & Development can yield results that go beyond the initial scope of the project. Not only has this project allowed medical professors to enhance their level of service in treating diseases, it has given researchers new tools to analyze genomes from numerous species, driven down the costs of sequencing DNA, and allowed private companies to offer services in the private sector. These successes further highlight that we need to continue investments in government research and developing new ways to bring government research to the public. Two major federally funded projects, the BRAIN initiative, and the Cancer Moonshot, could be the next breakthroughs that propel scientific knowledge into the 21st century.

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