TWENTY YEARS ago, on June 26th 2000, those running the public Human Genome Project and its private-sector shadow, a firm called Celera Genomics, decided to declare victory. In a simultaneous breasting of the tape, each published a “working draft” of the genome. The broker, Bill Clinton, hosted the chief scientists at the White House. Hyperbolic comparisons were made to the Apollo project to land people on the Moon.
Unlike Apollo, though, this announcement marked a beginning rather than an end. Genomics is now so embedded in biology that it is hard to recall what things were like before it. Those first human sequences cost billions of dollars to obtain. Today, with the advent of new technologies, a full sequence costs about $200, and less detailed versions are cheaper still. It is as if, to use Apollo as the analogy, regular shuttles to the Moon had become available at prices an average family in the West could afford—and the more adventurous might now be considering a trip to Mars.
Researchers with a hypothesis to test can, for instance, turn to biobanks containing details of tens or hundreds of thousands of people—their medical records, education, employment and, crucially, data about their genomes. Private companies will also sequence genomes to varying standards, for a suitable price. It is probably the case, and if not, it soon will be, that more than 1m human genomes have been sequenced by one method or another.
Genomics also helps non-medical biology. Many non-human species, including crops and domestic animals, have had their genomes sequenced. Though tinkering directly with the genes of organisms that end up on people’s plates still makes some a bit queasy, that is increasingly unnecessary. Genomic knowledge can now be used to speed up selective breeding, without the need for genetic engineering.
At the other end of the scientific spectrum, what can be done for Homo sapiens can be done, using DNA from fossils, for other (now extinct) species of human being: the Neanderthals and Denisovans. There is a possible practical interest even here. Sequencing shows that these species once interbred with Homo sapiens. It also suggests that the traces of that interbreeding which remain may help the recipient to fight off infections, by combating viruses and boosting the immune system. ■
Sources: INSDC; NHGRI; Broad Institute; S. Peyrégne et al., Science Advances, 2019; S. Mallick et al., Nature, 2016
This article appeared in the Graphic detail section of the print edition under the headline “Dawn of an era”