Origins of the Human Genome Project

One could say that the Human Genome Project really began in 1953, when James Watson and Francis Crick deduced the molecular structure of DNA, the molecule of which the genome is made. (Watson and Crick were awarded the Nobel Prize for this work in 1962.) Since that time, scientists have wanted to know the complete sequence of a gene, and even dreamed that some day it would be possible to determine the complete sequence of all of the genes in any organism, including humans.

The original impetus for the Human Genome Project came almost a decade earlier, however, from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) shortly after World War II. The atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, left many survivors who had been exposed to high levels of radiation. The survivors of the bomb were stigmatized in Japan. They were considered poor marriage prospects, because of the potential for carrying mutations, and the rest of Japanese society often ostracized them. In 1946 the famous geneticist and Nobel laureate Hermann J. Muller wrote in the New York Times that "if they could foresee the results [mutations among their descendants] 1,000 years from now . . . , they might consider themselves more fortunate if the bomb had killed them."

Muller had firsthand experience with the devastating effects of radiation, having studied the biological effects of radiation on the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster. He predicted similar results would follow from the human exposure to radiation. As a consequence, the Atomic Energy Commission of the DOE set up an Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission in 1947 to address the issue of potential mutations among the survivors. The problem they faced was how to experimentally determine such mutations. At that time there were no suitable methods to study the problem. Indeed, it would be many years before the appropriate technology was available.

During the 1970s molecular biologists developed techniques for the isolation and cloning of individual genes. Paul Berg was the first to create a recombinant DNA molecule in 1972, and within a few years gene cloning became a standard tool of the molecular biologist. Using cloning techniques, scientists could generate large quantities of a single gene, enabling researchers

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