The Human Genome Project has transformed biology and medicine

【双语】新时代的黎明 Dawn of an era-书迷号

TWENTY YEARS ago, on June 26th 2000, those running the public Human Genome Project and its private-sector shadow, a firm called Celera Genomics, decided to declare victory. In a simultaneous breasting of the tape, each published a “working draft” of the genome. The broker, Bill Clinton, hosted the chief scientists at the White House. Hyperbolic comparisons were made to the Apollo project to land people on the Moon.

二十年前的2000年6月26日,受公共基金资助的人类基因组计划(Human Genome Project)以及它在私营部门的平行项目赛雷拉基因组公司(Celera Genomics)的负责人都决定要宣告胜利。两者同时冲过了终点线,都发表了基因组“工作草图”。居中斡旋的比尔·克林顿在白宫招待了两方的首席科学家。人们夸张地把该计划和阿波罗登月计划相提并论。

Unlike Apollo, though, this announcement marked a beginning rather than an end. Genomics is now so embedded in biology that it is hard to recall what things were like before it. Those first human sequences cost billions of dollars to obtain. Today, with the advent of new technologies, a full sequence costs about $200, and less detailed versions are cheaper still. It is as if, to use Apollo as the analogy, regular shuttles to the Moon had become available at prices an average family in the West could afford—and the more adventurous might now be considering a trip to Mars.


Researchers with a hypothesis to test can, for instance, turn to biobanks containing details of tens or hundreds of thousands of people—their medical records, education, employment and, crucially, data about their genomes. Private companies will also sequence genomes to varying standards, for a suitable price. It is probably the case, and if not, it soon will be, that more than 1m human genomes have been sequenced by one method or another.


Genomics also helps non-medical biology. Many non-human species, including crops and domestic animals, have had their genomes sequenced. Though tinkering directly with the genes of organisms that end up on people’s plates still makes some a bit queasy, that is increasingly unnecessary. Genomic knowledge can now be used to speed up selective breeding, without the need for genetic engineering.


At the other end of the scientific spectrum, what can be done for Homo sapiens can be done, using DNA from fossils, for other (now extinct) species of human being: the Neanderthals and Denisovans. There is a possible practical interest even here. Sequencing shows that these species once interbred with Homo sapiens. It also suggests that the traces of that interbreeding which remain may help the recipient to fight off infections, by combating viruses and boosting the immune system. ■