Human Genome Project

Thomas Hunt Morgan (1866–1945), Alfred Sturtevant (1891–1970), Francis Crick (1916–2004), Frederick Sanger (1918–2013), James D. Watson (b. 1928)


It was the biological counterpart of putting a human on the moon, the largest biological project ever undertaken. In the late 1980s, the idea was conceived of mapping the human genome, its entire DNA and genes, and in 2003 it was 99 percent completed. The primary objective of the Human Genome Project (HGP) was to find the genetic basis for diseases (such as cancer) and to determine individual variations in our human genetic code that make some of us more susceptible to certain diseases. An understanding of these diseases at a genetic level could potentially lead to the development of highly specific biopharmaceuticals. By 2013, some 1,800 disease-related genes had been reported and 350 biotechnology-based products were in clinical trials.

Jointly funded by the US Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health, HGP was initiated in 1990 as an international research effort that was projected to be completed in fifteen years. Two years ahead of schedule, in 2003, the project was essentially completed—the human genome had been sequenced—at an approximate cost of $3.8 billion dollars; in 2006, the sequence of the last chromosome was published. Of our 23 chromosomal pairs, 22 are non-sex determining. A human has some 20,000–25,000 genes (about the same number as a mouse), composed of a total of 3.3 billion base pairs. (By contrast, the fruit fly has 13,767 genes.) The DNA of all living organisms consists of the same four base pairs, and it is their specific order that determines whether the organism will be a human, fruit fly, or plant.

The fruits of this effort began almost 100 years earlier. The world’s first genetic map was of Drosophila melanogaster (fruit fly) and the subject of Alfred Sturtevant’s 1911 doctoral dissertation, working under the direction of Thomas Hunt Morgan at Columbia University. In 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick described the double helix structure of DNA and the nature of the base pairs of adenine, thymine, guanine, and cytosine. In 1975 Frederick Sanger developed a DNA sequencing technique. Morgan, Watson, Crick, and Sanger were Nobel Prize winners.

SEE ALSO: Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA) (1869), Genes on Chromosomes (1910), DNA as Carrier of Genetic Information (1944), The Double Helix (1953), Bioinformatics (1977), Genomics (1986), Human Microbiome Project (2012).

An ultraviolet laser beam passes through a cuvette used for measuring DNA.