A recent episode of Dr Kat Arney's Genetics Unzipped podcast series titled, Past Present and Future of the Human Genome Project, featured an interview with Dr Eric Green, director of the US National Human Genome Research Institute. Dr Green has participated in the Human Genome Project since its inception, 30 years ago. Dr Arney asked him a range of interesting questions that allowed the audience to gain a broader perspective of the project. This episode of the series showcased the history of the Human Genome Project in a way that was accessible for the general public, while also being specific and detailed enough to be interesting to science-savvy listeners.
Dr Arney asked Dr Green about how the goals of the project were established. Dr Green explained that initially the goal was to map the human genome until new technology became available to sequence it. Most researchers at the time believed that traditional sequencing methods they were using initially to map the genome, such as the Sanger chain-termination method, or the Maxam-Gilbert method would not be the methods used to sequence the genome later. However, as each step progressed, the Sanger chain-termination method was further tested, improved, and ultimately played a part in sequencing the genome with the aid of newer technologies.
Thus, the beliefs of how the research would be conducted changed drastically over time and the scientists involved in this project needed to reconvene periodically to check in and create new goals for their research. In retrospect, this approach makes sense: they did what they could to progress their research. From the outside, I had no idea that not only did the technology improve and change, but so did the project itself, a fascinating insight.
Dr Green went on to explain how he felt being involved at the start of the project. 'I think that those of us who got involved in the genome project on day one, did so somewhat naïvely. On the one hand you knew this was going to be high profile. We were very laser focused on what we were doing to try to accomplish it. But every time we would bring our head up and sort of look around, it was a little scary. The goals were audacious.'
Once the initial project was completed, or at least complete as far as was possible at the time, for many involved, this huge achievement was just the beginning. Dr Green stated that one goal was to sequence the human genome even more completely than the first time, thanks to current technologies that were not available in the early 2000s. Another goal that the scientists are currently working towards, is to account for variations in the genome across humankind.
I remember hearing about the project's completion, and I thought it was so important at the time. But looking back now, it was more important than I think many people realised. Genomics is a vital part of science, and is really on the cutting edge of research going forward. This podcast episode highlighted this point for me.
Dr Arney and Dr Green continued by discussing the future of genomics. These days, genomics is involved in a wide spectrum of human health and scientific research. Dr Green stated that the US National Human Genome Research Institute can no longer cover all of genomics. Instead, he said, 'We have to really focus on the forefront of genomics. But even at the forefront, there's incredible responsibilities and incredible opportunities, incredible challenges... And we think that genomics has to become much more mainstream in medicine over the coming decade, but it requires a lot of development, a lot of research, a lot of education, a lot of policies.' It feels exciting and daunting to imagine the future of science and specifically of genomics.
I really enjoyed listening to this episode of the Genetics Unzipped podcast. It was a great introduction to the series for me, and I thought the interview was well constructed: it hit a great balance between detailing specifics as well as painting the bigger picture of the Human Genome Project. Having the first person account and perspective of the whole journey provided great insight into the field of genomics and where it is going from here. I look forward to listening to more episodes of this series to learn more about genetics from a range of perspectives and experts.