on February 12th, 2015 No Comments
Eric Lander, PhD, warned the several hundred people who came to hear him speak on the Stanford campus earlier this week that he wasn’t giving a traditional data-packed scientific presentation.
Instead, the founding director of the Broad Institute and veteran of the Human Genome Project — who Google’s Eric Schmidt introduced — promised to tell a story, a yarn about, as he put, the biomedicine of the East Coast meeting the technological innovation of the West Coast. (He couched the statement and admitted that yes, the West Coast does have a bit of biomedicine.)
So here goes:
Once upon a time, 35 years ago, in a land ruled by punk rock and big hair, scientists worked hard to pinpoint the genetic cause of cystic fibrosis, a disease caused by a single mutation. It was slow, hard work, but they persevered and found the gene.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to know all the human genes, some scientists speculated, buoyed by their preliminary success. Cancer could be vanquished. Genetic disorders a thing of the past. But getting to that point might take as long as 2,000 years.
Enter the Human Genome Project (HGP) in 1990. A collaborative effort of 16 research centers in six countries, the team “industrialized biology,” cranking out a code for the 3 billion base pairs that make up the human genome.
Of equal importance, the HGP was advocating the importance of public access to genetic material. It faced a challenge from a rival private company, Celera, who proposed creating a subscription database with the genetic information.
The HGP also had to contend with hype, Lander said: With a banner-headline, the New York Times had proclaimed in 2000 “Genetic code of human life is cracked by scientists.”
But really, the scientists had little more than a gigantic text — ATCGGCTATATAATCG — that Lander likened to the Rosetta Stone. By comparing it with the genomes of mice, dogs, rats, cats, dolphins and many other critters, scientists worldwide were able to decipher it piece by piece.