HGP ; Human Genome Project background analysis

Human Genome Project; HGP

To discover the mystery of the universe is the dream of every scientist. Since human is a part of the universe, therefore to solve the question of explaining the miracle of life is the aim of most scientists. In the 20th century, there are 3 national projects in the United States of America and all of them have great achievements and contributions to everyone. The first one, Manhattan Project¡ in the 1940s, the Americans invented Atomic Bomb and end the 2nd world war. The second one is Apollo Project¡¦ raised by America President in 1960s and allows man to walk on the Moon. The final one is Human Genome ProjectThis is leaded by developed countries in 1980s and is the topic that I am going to discuss in the following essay.


Background of Human Genome Project: (1)


In Perilous Knowledge by Tom Wilkie, there is a chapter talking about the establishment of HGP. From his introduction, I found that the research of HGP had spread over the world including European countries and Asian countries. Robert Sinsheimer, the American microbiologist, was the first one who suggested HGP and biology could undergo those giant research projects like physics and astronomy. He suggested setting up a professional department for HGP. Though his suggestion didn’t pass the parliament, it raised a lot of awareness from both opponents and proponents. The opponents worried about the large amount of money would have spent on useless information, as 90% of human’s DNA has no function at all. Or else if we know too much about human’s DNA, the theory of Eugenics may lead to others big problems that out of expectation. However there were still a lot of proponents, like James Watson, who is the first supervisor of U.S. HGP.


Establishment of Human Genome Project: (5)


When there were a lot of affairs on HGP between the scientists and the Department of Energy of USA (DOE), the most powerful organization in science, the National Research Council (NRC) decided to start discussion on this topic. The result of the discussion had strongly proved the advantages of the HGP, but the committee proposed that the project should focus on genetic map first, and then physical map. Besides, the research project should increase the area and point out the importance of finding other organisms¡¦ DNA such as bacteria, fruit flies, laboratory mouse, had much positive influence on human as well.


The report of NRC had comforted the scientists and motivated the National Institute of Health (NIH) to have a leadership role in HGP. On 1st of October 1988, James Watson was appointed to be the director of HGP, and on the same day, NIH and DOE signed the co-operative contract on HGP but with NIH played the main role. The work of U.S. HGP could be divided into two parts: finish genetic map, i.e. the distance between 2-5 centimorgans (1 centimorgan equal to the length of 1 million bases) to distinguish the genes¡¦ location; and finish physical map, i.e. figure out all the genes sequence in chromosomes.


After the establishment of U.S. HGP, the other countries followed and started a lot of similar research project. For instance, the Advisory Council on Science and Technology (ACOST) set up U.K. HGP in 1988, the Center dEtude du Polymorphisme (GEPH) and Genethon set up France HGP.


In view of more and more HGP set up in different countries, in order to prevent any doubled research and increase the efficiency, the Human Genome Project Organization (HGPO) had finally set up and leaded by the American Genetics Professional Victor Mckusick. The head quarter was in Geneva, and the other working departments situated in London, Osaka. However, HGPO didn¡¦t have much effect, as there was no sponsorship and have no power towards the countries¡¦ research.


Begun in 1990, the U.S. Human Genome Project is a 13-year effort coordinated by the Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health. The project originally was planned to last 15 years, but effective resource and technological advances have accelerated the expected completion date to 2003. Project goals are to


  1. identify all the approximately 30,000 genes in human DNA,


  1. determine the sequences of the 3 billion chemical base pairs that make up human DNA,


  1. store this information in databases,


  1. improve tools for data analysis,


  1. transfer related technologies to the private sector, and


  1. address the ethical, legal, and social issues (ELSI) that may arise from the project.


To help achieve these goals, researchers also are studying the genetic makeup of several nonhuman organisms. These include the common human gut bacterium Escherichia coli, the fruit fly, and the laboratory mouse.


A unique aspect of the U.S. Human Genome Project is that it is the first large scientific undertaking to address the ELSI implications that may arise from the project.


Another important feature of the project is the federal government’s long-standing dedication to the transfer of technology to the private sector. By licensing technologies to private companies and awarding grants for innovative research, the project is catalyzing the multibillion-dollar U.S. biotechnology industry and fostering the development of new medical applications.


There are billions of cells in our bodies. Every cell has the same DNA. The gene make-up is very complicated. Luckily W.Arber and H.Smith found restriction enzyme which can divide millions of ATCG bases into fixed lengths. Moreover, S.Cohen, H.Boyer and Stanley invented Bacterial Plasmid technique which can multiply the DNA fragments into clone. In addition to the method of Maxam-Gilbert, Sanger and Smith invention, the process of finding the bases sequence was much easier onwards.


Not until 1980s the other developed countries join the research gradually and set up HUGO. French scientist Weissenbach and D.Cohen invented another method to cut DNA into fragments. The method worked together with Polymerase Chain Reaction. It enhanced the speed of HGP. Cambridge Scientist invented Radiation Hybrids which can distinguish the different location of the genes of the genome and set up gene database. Originally the scientists use E.Coli plasmid which can only carry short fragments, but now they changed to use Yeast Artificial Chromosomes (YAC) to carry fragments and the length can be a 100 times longer. Then by using radiation hybrids to develop YAC database, human DNA fragments could contain more than 2 genes and the position of the genes on the chromosomes could then be determined.


Potential Benefits of Human Genome Project: (2)


Rapid progress in genome science and a glimpse into its potential applications have spurred observers to predict that biology will be the foremost science of the 21st century. Technology and resources generated by the Human Genome Project and other genomics research are already having a major impact on research across the life sciences. The potential for commercial development of genomics research presents U.S. industry with a wealth of opportunities, and sales of DNA-based products and technologies in the biotechnology industry are projected to exceed $45 billion by 2009 (Consulting Resources Corporation Newsletter, Spring 1999).


Some current and potential applications of genome research include


  1. bioarchaeology, anthropology, evolution, and human migration


  1. agriculture, livestock breeding, and bioprocessing


Though HGP implies the fantastic technology development of human, the research result may have unexpectable side effects that can affect human in long term. The most direct concern is Eugenics. Apart from it, if someone knows about his/her own genetics information, is the information treated as privacy? If not, then will the information affect employments and insurance? If yes, how can we protect it? Can we choose not to know our genetics information? Furthermore, if the physicians discover some inheritance diseases in the embryo, do them have to respect the families and tell them? Or due to the possibilities of the diseases which may not 100% appear, and then do not tell the families? Once more, if the diseases appear after 50 years old, why does the patient have to live under worrying for 50 years?


Hence, the scientists have to consider towards the benefits and situation of the patient at anytime. HGP result must improve the techniques on gene therapy and genetics engineering dramatically. So the parents can ask for specific zygote which contain special abilities, such as height, complexion, musical abilities, sports talent, language abilities or even mathematics abilities. HGP helps us know more about life. However behind the big project, does the biological determinism simplify the complexity of life too much?


There are not much concerns on HGP, but on the result of it, as gene therapy and genetics engineering demand so much on the location of the genes on the chromosomes. So we have to look at the concern of gene therapy and genetic engineering. First of all, there are lots of experimental errors on gene therapy. No one can say he can insert the genes at the correct position on chromosomes. After inserting, will the new genes affect the other normal genes, for example, the new genes activate the other genes which normally functionless. It is so easy to have a mutated generation. Secondly, the aim of gene therapy is to correct the disease-causing genes. But, how can we define ¡¥normal¡¦ and ¡¥abnormal¡¦? For instance, sickle cell anemia can defense malaria, if you correct this gene, then you cannot defense malaria anymore. Finally, gene therapy may change the originally aim into enhancement genetic engineering and eugenic genetic engineering. People can select their offspring with different abilities. Since the engineering must cost a huge amount of money, the society will become extremely unfair between different levels of people and may result as discrimination.


Although there are lots of concerns behind the project, the proponents still have their points on efficiency and uniqueness. The patients can receive proper treatments faster and have less pain. (6)


Another ethical concern on HGP is the difference on genetic disease and genetic predisposition. The former one said if you miss out some genes then you definitely have the disease and the syndromes will show at an early stage of life. The later one is you get some mutated genes from your parents which may have a chance to develop into a disease, but it is not a must for you to have the disease or even sometimes, the disease will not show up throughout your whole life. The former one, of course, has the least problems. For the latter one, what will you do if you know you have the disease?


The genetic information allows the pregnant women to check whether her children have any horrible diseases and make the decision on abortion. However, an abortion be done if the children have genetic predisposition only? A more serious problem is, if the mother wants the children to be genius and the genetic information showed that they cannot be, and then is abortion allowed to do? Women have their choices on abortion nowadays. But will they really base on the genetic information and control the future of the embryo? (1)


Based on genetic information, employers may try to avoid hiring workers they believe are likely to take sick leave, resign, or retire early for health reasons (creating extra costs in recruiting and training new staff), file for workers’ compensation, or use healthcare benefits excessively. Some employers may seek to use genetic tests to discriminate against workers–even those who do not and may never show signs of disease–because the employers fear the cost consequences.


The economic incentive to discriminate based on genetic information is likely to increase as genetic research advances and the costs of genetic testing decrease. Genetic predisposition or conditions can lead to workplace discrimination, even in cases where workers are healthy and unlikely to develop disease or where the genetic condition has no effect on the ability to perform work.


Insurers can still use genetic information in the individual market in decisions about coverage, enrollment, and premiums. Insurers can still require individuals to take genetic tests. Individuals are not protected from the disclosure of genetic information to insurers; plan sponsors (employers), and medical information bureaus, without their consent. (2)


I think it is necessary to have HGP as HGP can save a lot of people from unbelievable painful sickness. It can enhance the technology of gene therapy so that less incurable disease will be found in the gene pool. Besides the society does not have to afford too much to cure those inheritance diseases. However if the result and sources of HGP wrongly used by some bad people to make benefit on it, then the world will become such a dark place which cannot have lives anymore. We know our genetics information but it does not mean we can control our lives. I support HGP on the one hand; on the other hand I am still afraid of the result which may bring us some disaster. Behind every invention, like atomic bomb, bring us catastrophe and more and more lives will be destroyed. I hope the people in charged in HGP can consider this point. Actually there is an Ethical, Legal and Social Implications (ELSI) Research Program, but I think it is not enough yet. More improvement should be done on it.(3)


No matter what kind of invention, there are both pros and cons. We have to consider whether pros can outweigh cons or not. The Human Genome Project said that all the genetics mapping on human genes would have been finished by Spring 2003. We cannot expect what disaster of lives will have or really, we benefit a lot on gene therapy and genetic engineering. The most important we have to know that, though we know about our own genetics information, we still cannot take over control on our fate.







(1)          Genetics Hurricane, published by Newton Company in Taiwan, written by top professors and researchers in Taiwan.

(2)          Human Genome Project Information, http://www.ornl.gov/hgmis/

(3)          National Human Genome Research Institute, http://www.genome.gov

(4)          NEWTON Graphic Science Magazine No. 183

(5)          South China Morning Post

(6)          TIMES (Asian Edition) August 2001


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