In April 2003, headlines around the world announced a momentous scientific achievement: the completion of the Human Genome Project. An international consortium of researchers had finished compiling the sequence of 3 billion base pairs — or letters that spell out the genetic code — in everyone’s DNA.
The effort took 13 years and cost $2.7 billion dollars. It also nicely coincided with another historic feat in biology: the 50th anniversary of the discovery of DNA’s double helix structure.
Characterizing the letters that made up this DNA sequence not only changed our understanding of how genetic information was stored and translated within cells, but also the scope of future biological and medical research.
This year, the National Institutes of Health has launched a “15 for 15” campaign to highlight some of the ways in which genomics has transformed our world in the last 15 years.
For one, sequencing technology has become faster and better. The record for sequencing a whole human genome is now 19.5 hours. And it’s remarkably cheap, at around $1000, compared to its original cost. These advances have allowed scientists to study how certain genes function, how much they vary among different populations, and which ones contribute to various diseases.
As a result of these studies, hospitals in most states now screen newborn babies for over 50 genetic conditions and secondary disorders to diagnose rare diseases early on. The Food and Drug Administration now requires that the labels of more than 100 drugs include information about genetic markers, so doctors can tailor their prescriptions to a patient’s genetic makeup. And three groundbreaking gene therapies were approved in just the last year.
The ability to peer into the genome has also moved out of labs. Anyone can order a direct-to-consumer genetic test to have bits of their genome sequenced, even though scientists and genetic counselors can’t always interpret what the results of these tests mean.
We still have a long way to go in understanding the human genome and how our particular sequence of letters interacts with our environment, our microbiome, and other factors to impact our health. So perhaps it’s a good time to look back at some of the challenges and successes of the past 15 years. The NIH will reveal a new one every day leading up to National DNA Day on April 25. And you can follow along on Twitter, Facebook, or at any of a series of events around the country.