Ten Years On: Why a Complete Human Genome Mattered

Feat-human-genome-list-thumb-640xauto-19652John Timmer in Ars Technica:

Open a recent edition of Science or Nature, and you're likely to be bombarded with articles about a significant anniversary: ten years have passed since the announced completion of the human genome.

These articles tend to focus on how the genome is (or isn't) transforming medicine, science, or society. Sure, it sounds like a terrific milestone, but did it change anything about life in the lab?

I started graduate school back when the debate about whether to sequence the human genome began, and my research career ultimately benefitted from the technology that came out of the program. Most of what you'll read about the anniversary will involve grand perspectives and talk of “breakthroughs,” and those are important, but I'd like to offer a grunt-level view of just how much the human genome project changed biology. This is a personal perspective, and any mis-rememberances or erroneous interpretations are my own.

One of my clearest memories, however, is that back when the project was first proposed, there were real questions about whether it would ever get off the ground…

My graduate career began at the same time that biologists and policymakers had kicked off a public debate about whether to sequence the entire human genome. The project would be an enormous undertaking in terms of funding, resources, and personnel, one that might pull federal funding from individual labs.

It was also a bit of a departure for biology, which hadn't known the big-budget science projects that were common in fields like astronomy and physics. Needless to say, allocating this much money to one idea made many researchers uneasy.

And it wasn't clear that such a project was even necessary.