Okay, to recap for those of you who haven’t followed in a while, this column is something of a stream of consciousness journal, covering things that I happen to think are interesting. I started out with general and special relativity, which affect the clocks on GPS satellites, which have been used to chart the movements of continents, providing proof for the theory of plate tectonics, which was more accurate than similar measurements taken earlier by a technique called laser ranging, which required astronauts to place mirrors on the moon, which they reached with the help of a Saturn V rocket, which employed special explosives called shape charges to dispose of spent rocket stages. Shape charges were also used to build atomic bombs, which, in America, were overseen by the Department of Energy, which later funded the Human Genome Project.
The Human Genome Project, or the HGP, has been the subject of plenty of coverage in the press. It began in the May of 1985 when Robert Sinsheimer, who currently works at UCSB, called a workshop at UC Santa Cruz at which scientists discussed for the first time the possibility of mapping the human genome. Individually, most had thought the idea impossible. With the methods available at the time, it would have taken thousands of people a huge span of time to complete. However, the discussion at UC Santa Cruz revolved around the fact that computers could conceivably automate the entire process within a few years.
Convinced for the first time that mapping the human genome was a plausible feat, researchers went back to their own universities across the country. But the funding necessary for such a large project could come from only one place: the government. Initially, government health agencies like the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health showed little interest. It was still not clear what benefit could come from mapping the human genome. But one government agency was ripe for a new pet project.
The Department of Energy’s Office of Health and Environmental Research had formerly been responsible for determining the effects of radiation on living organisms – and for the most part, they had it down by 1985. This left a rather large bureaucracy with relatively little to do. Perhaps because they saw the merit in the HGP, perhaps because they were used to dealing with esoteric subjects or perhaps because their jobs were on the line – or possibly some combination of the three – OHER decided to back the HGP and was joined afterwards by the NIH, which was quick to play catch-up.
Congress gave the okay, and by 1990, the Human Genome was underway with Jim Watson of the famous Watson and Crick duo as the seminal director. Now, 13 years later, with the first draft of the genome complete, genome research is spawning fascinating new fields of medicine and new pharmaceuticals. Some say this is the beginning of a whole new age for medicine. Others are still asking what it’s good for. Either way, there’s plenty to explore – enough for a whole other column.
Josh Braun is the Daily Nexus science editor.