On April 14 2003, scientists announced the end to one of the most remarkable achievements in history: the first (nearly) complete sequencing of a human genome. It was the culmination of a decade-plus endeavor that involved thousands of scientists across the globe. Many people hoped the accomplishment would change the world for the better.
For the 20-year anniversary of this historic event, we took a look back at the Human Genome Project and its impact. How did it shape science moving forward? How many of the expected goals have been reached since? And what lies ahead for the study of genetics?
A genome is the entire set of genetic information that makes up an organism. This information is packaged into sequences of DNA we call genes, which in humans are spread along 23 pairs of chromosomes. Only a small portion of these genes contain the instructions for coding the many proteins essential for life, but much of the rest is still thought to be important to our functioning. As scientists would eventually confirm, one copy of the human genome has around 3 billion base pairs of DNA. The sheer magnitude of the effort needed to map all this wasn’t lost on the researchers involved in the project, especially given the technology available decades ago.
“There’s been lots of analogies that people have put forward—like us being Lewis and Clark. We didn’t really have a map,” said Richard Gibbs, founder and director of the Baylor College of Medicine Human Genome Sequencing Center in Texas, one of the major institutions involved in the project.
Gibbs and his many colleagues knew they had to make compromises. Despite the advancements in sequencing technology since the official start of the project in 1990, they couldn’t fill in every gap with their current tools. And the first human genome was a composite of several blood donors in the U.S., not a single person. Along the way, private company Celera entered the picture, promising that it would complete a separate genome project using its own techniques even faster. Ultimately, both groups finished ahead of schedule around the same time, with the first draft sequences released in 2000, though Celera announced its success a few months earlier.
Regardless of the victor, the feat certainly did usher in a new era of genetics research—one that has seen great leaps in speed and efficiency since 2003.
“I think the very most important accomplishment in the past 20 years has been the advent of next-generation sequencing. The ability to perform sequencing in a massively parallel way, so that you could do it far more quickly and cheaply,” said Stacey Gabriel, director of the Genomics Platform at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, another major research site involved in the Human Genome Project. “And that has come with all of the associated advancement in our computational abilities, too, to really be able to take that data and analyze it at a massive scale as well.”
The original project cost $2.7 billion, with most of the genome being mapped over a two-year span. Nowadays, the current speed record for sequencing a genome is around five hours (more often, though, it takes weeks), and this past fall, the company Illumina unveiled a machine that it claims will cost as little as $200 per sequence, down from the recently typical $600 cost.
Greg Findlay leads the Genome Function Laboratory at the Francis Crick Institute in the UK. His team is one of many around the world that is building on the work of the original project. They’re currently trying to identify and understand how certain variants in tumor-suppressor genes can raise our risk of cancer.
“So what my lab tries to do is actually understand what variants do to the genome. That is, we want to know exactly which variants cause disease and why they cause disease. Right now, we’re focused on certain genetic changes that lead to cancer, and I think this particular field has really been revolutionized by the Human Genome Project,” Findlay said. “We now know there are many, many different genetic paths by which cells can turn into cancer. And we know this, because we’ve been able to actually sequence the DNA in so many different tumors repeatedly, across all different types of cancer, to see what are the mutations that actually lead to cancer forming.”
Perhaps equally important was the project’s impact on scientific collaboration. The effort directly led to an international agreement meant to ensure open access to DNA sequences. It also made clear that great things could be possible when large groups of scientists worked together, according to Gibbs.
“It simply changed the way that people thought that biology could be done,” he said. “It built a model for team science that was not there before.”
Even at the time, though, the project knowingly left some things unfinished. They had mapped roughly 92% of the genome by 2003, but it would take almost 20 more years for other scientists to track down the remaining 8%. This missing “dark matter” of our genome could very well provide new clues about how humans evolved or our susceptibility to various diseases.
Much of the genetic information collected and analyzed since the project ended has come from white and European populations—a disparity that hampers our ability to truly understand the impact of genetics on everyone’s health. But scientists today are working on bridging that gap through initiatives like the Human Pangenome Project, which will sequence and make available the full genomes of over 300 people intended to represent the breadth of human diversity around the globe.
“There’s genetic variation that exists across all the world’s populations. And if you only use variations from a sliver of the world’s populations, and you try to apply that to everybody else, it just doesn’t work very well, because we all have different backgrounds,” said Lucinda Antonacci-Fulton, one of the project’s coordinators and director of project development & new initiatives at Washington University in St. Louis’s McDonnell Genome Institute. “So the more inclusive you can be, the better off you are in terms of treatments that you want to bring into the clinic.”
As important as genetics research has been, some of the expectations fueled by the Human Genome Project likely were too lofty. In 2000, for instance, President Bill Clinton claimed that the project would “revolutionize the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of most, if not all, human diseases.” While we do continue to discover new gene variants that strongly predict the odds of developing a specific disease or trait, there are countless others that we’re still in the dark about. Elsewhere, it’s become clear that our genome often only plays a small or negligible role in why we get sick or experience something in a particular manner. So although the project has helped unlock some of the mysteries of the world, there are so many more questions out there about why we are the way we are, and our genes are probably not going to provide a neat answer to many of them.
“I think where things are oversold, sometimes, is with this notion that just because the human genome is done, you’re going to be able to read it off for some sort of deterministic answer—where finding genes for disease becomes like falling off a log,” Gabriel notes. “But often human disease, especially the diseases that impact us the most, these are not simple genetic diseases. They’re multifactorial. They’re combinations of your genes, your behavior, exposure to the environment, sometimes just bad luck.”
None of this is to sell short the potential of genetics. Hans Lehrach, a former director at the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics in Germany, was one of the first researchers involved in the Human Genome Project. He’s also one of many scientists who believe that we’ll someday be able to cheaply and easily scan a person’s genome at a moment’s notice and that this information, along with other aspects of our molecular make-up, will help guide the specific drugs or interventions doctors prescribe—a concept known as personalized medicine. Notably, the treatment of some cancers is already influenced by the variants that underlie their growth. Some experts even argue that widespread whole genome sequencing should start as early as birth, and there are already small-scale programs in the U.S., UK, and elsewhere testing out its potential benefits and risks.
“Not knowing about your genome is a bit like crossing the street while closing your eyes because you don’t want to see a bus coming. If we don’t sequence our genomes, the buses keep coming anyway—it just lets us open our eyes and maybe see the kind of danger that we can escape or do something about,” Lehrach said.
The Human Genome Project truly has changed the scientific landscape, but we’re still only at the very beginning of seeing the world that it’s made possible.