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In Context #5 (Spring, 2001, pp. 14-19); copyright 2001 by The Nature Institute

Life Beyond Genes

Reflections on the Human Genome Project

Craig Holdrege and Johannes Wirz

During the 1990s molecular biologists were fully engaged in a race to determine the complete DNA sequence in various organisms. And they succeeded—first in bacteria, then in yeast, and finally in a well-researched roundworm (C. elegans). In early 2000 the DNA sequence of the fruit fly, the genetic workhorse of the twentieth century, was completed. In June, 2000, at the White House amid media fanfare, two genome sequencing teams announced that they had completed a "working draft" of the human genome. Their reports were published in February, 2001 (1,2). The mega-project was at an end—or was it actually just the beginning?

Another Century of Work

In 1991 geneticist Walter Gilbert made a brash statement: "I expect that sequence data for all model organisms and half of the total knowledge of the human organism will be available in five to seven years, and all of it by the end of the decade" (3). With regard to sequencing, Gilbert was astoundingly close in his conjecture. At that time almost no one believed the feat could be accomplished in only ten years. But technical advances in automated, rapid sequencing, along with more