The real lesson of the human genome project

When I was pursuing my PhD, the human genome project was often both regarded as overly ambitious (maybe even impossible) and full of possibilities. To many people’s surprise, the project was declared complete back in 2003, much earlier than expected. Today, we have a “roughly” complete map of the human genome.

Many announced, too soon it turns out, that it would quickly bring new cures, new therapies, that were previously unthinkable. Fifteen years later, the concrete results are somewhat thin on the ground.

But it made one very important difference. Before we could track down people’s genes, it was often believed that our destiny was written out in our DNA. You were what you genes said you were.

So people quickly moved to cataloging the genes of the super smart, the genes of the athletes, the genes of the centenarians. And what have they found? Not a whole lot.

There are a few genes that might help you live a bit longer. There are a few genes more frequent in athletes. And so forth. But the effects are often quite weak. There are exceptions here and there. Some genes give you a much higher chance of getting some cancers, or Alzheimer’s and so forth… but they affect relatively few of us in aggregate.

Chances are that if you have your genome sequenced, you will find that you are slightly lucky in some ways and slightly unlucky in others… but it is all quite boring.

If we could build a human body from the DNA up, selecting only the best genes, the result would be nothing like a superman.

If you have a toned body, some of your genes are activated, but it turns out that your nerdy friend who barely looks like a man has more or less the same genes, they are just silenced.

And so, I think that the main lesson is that human biology is far more malleable than many people thought. And this means that the badly dressed kid next to you, who looks like an unhealthy idiot? To a close approximation, he probably has a comparable genetic legacy to yours.

5 thoughts on “The real lesson of the human genome project”

  1. While what you say is true to a large extent – there have been a number of advances. One of the most interesting is targeted therapies. Performing genetic analysis gives significant insight into why people respond differently to treatment of a disease. For example, cancer patients – some of whom recovery remarkably, and others for whom the same therapy barely works.

    To date, these studies have been confined to stage 4 cancer sufferers, but the results have been quite interesting (bear in mind most stage 4 sufferers are mostly expected to die, and sooner rather than later). I strongly suspect that as these techniques are brought to bear on patients with early stage cancer, we may be able to improve outcomes while reducing side effects substantially.

    We may also develop important insight into why cancers for the most part do not advance, but in a few individuals do develop, grow and metastasize – ones genes still being the main determinant in who suffers from cancer or not.

  2. “The real lesson of the human genome project”:

    We do not understand how life actually works @ the molecular level.

    The end.

  3. I always thought DNA was mostly various cellular blueprints and initial development with the brain handling the development of our more advanced biology, I’m looking at you gigantism.

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