This past Monday, April 14, a group of scientists at the National Institutes of Health in Washington announced the completion of one of the most ambitious scientific projects ever undertaken, the mapping of the human genetic code. The announcement came 50 years almost to the day after the structure of DNA was first described in print in the British journal Nature.
The genetic mapping project, a 13-year, $3 billion effort known as the Human Genome Project, isn’t really complete, as scientists acknowledge. About 1% of the human genetic map remains to be identified. For that matter, this isn’t the first time the project was declared complete; three years ago there was a similar hoopla, when the map was “all but complete” at 85%. As Ami Eden reports on Page 7, the process of decoding our genes has been leading since the beginning to grandstanding, upstaging and sexism.
Still, this is a week for celebration. The genome project has opened up new frontiers in human knowledge, unlocking the inner recesses of our bodies for exploration in the way that the space project has done for the universe. Nor is the progress merely theoretical. Mapping out the genetic code has already brought countless advances in medical science, from diabetes to leukemia. Just last week, gene science led to the crucial identification of the virus that is causing the deadly new plague known as SARS.
The human genome project, by putting the entire code online and making it available worldwide, turns all these advances into gifts for all humanity.
At a time when the human capacity for mischief and self-destruction seems to dominate the headlines, the genome project is a moving reminder of our capacity for nobility. It’s also a healthy reminder of the good that government can do when it harnesses the resources and talents of humanity for the common welfare.