The sequencing of the human genomeâfiguring out the exact order of the billions of amino acid pairs in human chromosomesâranks as the one of the most spectacular achievements in the history of science. It's the key to unlocking the causes and potential cures for any number of genetically related diseases.
"Mapping" of chromosomesâfinding the chromosomal location of specific genesâbegan in the early '50s and had accelerated by the '70s, though a detailed map wasn't completed until 1994. The notion of sequencing the genome was first proposed in 1985, but it took several years before improved technology made such a project financially feasible. The Human Genome Project officially kicked off in 1990âa joint effort of the U.S. Energy Department and the National Institutes of Health, but including hundreds of international participants as wellâ with a goal of sequencing the entire genome in 15 years.
Things accelerated in 1998, when biotech entrepreneur J. Craig Venter established Celera Genomics, a company with the stated purpose of sequencing the genome first and then profiting from the resulting information. Celera said it would completely sequence the human genome by 2001. Those were fighting words, and the Human Genome Project participants and Celera ended up publishing preliminary sequences simultaneously in the eminent journals Nature and Science, respectively, in February 2001âabout four years earlier than originally anticipated.