What We’ve Learned from the Human Genome Project
Although the Human Genome Project wrapped up over a decade ago, scientists are still using the data to make new discoveries, many of which have practical applications outside of scientific research. Since it can be difficult to understand exactly how the field of genomics can impact your daily life without a solid scientific foundation, it’s a good idea to learn the basics of what the Human Genome Project was designed to do and what initial findings it uncovered.
While the Human Genome Project has a fairly simple name, the undertaking of mapping and sequencing all the billions of proteins spread between 23 pairs of chromosomes is a massive undertaking. Essentially, researchers were working to understand how the complex makeup of proteins that comprise human life are able to vary from one human being to the next. The hope is that by better understanding what makes us human, we could better tackle issues of overall wellbeing, including physical and mental health, and the genetic predisposition to certain conditions.
The four basic goals of the project were:
- Full sequencing of the human genome
- Identifying human genes
- Looking for variations in human genomes
- Full sequencing of the genomes of five organisms, including the mouse.
Though this originally began as a joint venture between the US Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health in 1990, international cooperation within the growing field of genomics allowed researchers to complete their work a full five years early in 2000, with more complete information about the human genome becoming available in 2003.
One of the initial goals of the project was to line up the DNA sequencing of humans with those of various animals to see what, if anything, we had in common. Although that may not seem valuable on the surface, knowing which genes we have in common can provide valuable information about human genetics every time we learn something about a less complex organism. The animal genomes scientists have already mapped include:
- Fruit fly
- Puffer fish
Interestingly, the Human Genome Project has also provided us with more insight into the genetic sequence of cancer. While research into the cancer genome is ongoing, it is the hope that doctors will one day have the ability to offer better treatment options for patients based on the specific mutation of the cancer genome within the patient’s body.
Additional Research Projects
Of course, genomic research is far from over simply because the Human Genome Project is considered complete. Since every human genome consists of 3.2 billion DNA base pairs, the amount of data gathered from a single test subject is staggering. Now that technology has provided ways for us to store, access, manipulate and transfer data more efficiently through the cloud, scientists are finally able to make better use of the information provided by the project.
In fact, a variety of new research projects sprang up in the wake of the Human Genome Project, each hoping to use the data in unique ways. For instance, the Encode project is an ambitious effort that hopes to identify the function of each of the 3.2 billion pairs of base DNA within the human body.
Other fields of research are also popping up in response to the Human Genome Project. Their goals include:
- Customizing therapies for someone’s genetic profile
- Developing better tests for genetic predisposition of certain diseases
- Linking birth defects and disease to specific genes
- Repairing DNA to prevent disease.
As scientists continue to learn more about our DNA, the opportunity for increased clinical and consumer applications for this information are virtually endless.