NIH

25th Anniversary of the Launch of the Human Genome Project

A quarter-century ago, the NIH teamed up with the U.S. Department of Energy, the Wellcome Trust in the United Kingdom, and scientists from around the world to launch the Human Genome Project (HGP) - a massive, collaborative effort to map and sequence the human genome. October 1, 2015, marked the 25th anniversary of this launch. I find it hard to believe that it has been 25 years since the Project lunged from its starting line! 

In 1990, scientists and program administrators set lofty goals to complete the HGP in 15 years and at a cost of ~$1 per base of the human genome. Since the human genome is ~3 billion bases in size, the total cost of the HGP was, therefore, projected to be $3 billion dollars. While hopes were high that this could be achieved, there were many obstacles to overcome. Genetic and physical maps of the human genome needed to be generated. DNA sequencing technologies and strategies needed to be developed. Coordination and robust management practices needed to be put into place. In the beginning, it was unclear to many of the participants whether the HGP could be completed in the projected time or at the projected cost.

At the time of the HGP's launch, I was a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Maynard Olson's laboratory at Washington University (see picture below), working on the human genome mapping efforts of the HGP. It was the beginning of a new scientific era, and none of us quite envisioned just how quickly genomics would come into its own as a discipline and become so integral to other areas of basic research, let alone translational and clinical research.  


On left: Maynard Olson and Eric Green, Washington University, 1990.
On right: Cover art from the 2001 publication describing the draft genome sequence in Nature.

To capture the stories and experiences of some HGP participants, NHGRI and the NHGRI History of Genomics Program will be hosting a special seminar series, "A Quarter Century after the Human Genome Project's Launch: Lessons beyond the Base Pairs," on the NIH campus. We will kick off the series in December with a panel discussion chaired by me, and including former NHGRI Director and current NIH Director, Francis Collins, and former NHGRI Deputy Directors, Elke Jordan and Mark Guyer. Other confirmed speakers for the series include: Maynard Olson, Ewan Birney, Bob Cook-Deegan, Marco Marra, and David Bentley. The lectures and discussions will be videorecorded, and the NHGRI History of Genomics Program will conduct oral history interviews with the presenters and add these to the Institute's growing historical archives.


From left to right: HGP graphic from NHGRI, HGP graphic from U.S. DOE, and cover of the 1988 National Academies report "Mapping and Sequencing the Human Genome".

Part of the HGP's legacy was the fashion in which it paved the way for other 'big biology' projects that followed. Reflecting on this anniversary, I recently co-authored a Nature Comment entitled "Twenty-Five Years of Big Biology" with Francis Collins and James Watson, former Directors of NHGRI (or the National Center for Human Genome Research, as we were named at the time Dr. Watson was Director). In that Comment, we describe six key lessons from the HGP beyond the actual genomic data and technologies. These lessons have served to guide many important research projects, including many that are ongoing today. In addition to the written Comment, Nature also recently released a 'podcast' interview with me about the HGP's 25th anniversary.

When the HGP started, there was much uncertainty about whether we could really sequence the human genome, let alone do it in 15 years. Being able to sequence a human genome in a matter of days for close to $1,000 seemed like science fiction. Yet this is the reality we are in today! The technological advances that have occurred to make this happen are truly astounding. I am certain that genomics will prove to be as exciting (and impactful) in the next 25 years as it has been over the last 25.

To access a brief history of the Human Genome Project (HGP), see www.genome.gov/12011239/A-Brief-History-of-the-Human-Genome-Project.

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Posted: November 3, 2015