…My graduate career began at the same time that biologists and policymakers had kicked off a public debate about whether to sequence the entire human genome. The project would be an enormous undertaking in terms of funding, resources, and personnel, one that might pull federal funding from individual labs.
It was also a bit of a departure for biology, which hadn’t known the big-budget science projects that were common in fields like astronomy and physics. Needless to say, allocating this much money to one idea made many researchers uneasy.
And it wasn’t clear that such a project was even necessary. Over time, bits of the human genome were being filled in piecemeal without any grand, overarching project. Researchers studying human genes had walked slowly and painfully along chromosomes, filling in sequences as they went. Others cloned the human versions of genes found in other organisms. Some groups just randomly sequenced every piece of DNA that was made into messenger RNA.
Bit by bit, the most important parts of the human genome were being uncovered—I was certainly among those wondering if we really needed a huge and expensive project to sequence the whole thing.
Faith in the piecemeal approach turned out to be naive. Most of the human genome doesn’t seem “important” by the criteria we normally use to judge these things, but there are key pieces of regulatory DNA, including some that’s distinct to humans, scattered amidst all the noise. Without getting the whole genome, we would not have identified many of the sequences that help make us uniquely human. And we’d certainly have missed many things we didn’t even know about back then, like the micro-RNAs that regulate genes.