Church on the Personal Genome Project

George Church of Harvard has an editorial on his Personal Genome Project in the recent issue of Molecular Systems Biology.  Snip:

From my first interaction with Wally Gilbert in 1976, it seemed that a large (but appealing) leap would be to go from his new method for sequencing 30 bp segments to a method to get everyone’s full genome sequenced. Six billion base pairs for six billion people had a nice ring to it. This was still merely a fantasy when we published a paper called ‘Genomic Sequencing’ in 1984 (Church and Gilbert, 1984) and conspired to create a 3 billion dollar HGP later that year (Cook-Deegan, 1989). For the subsequent 16 years, radical technology development (while kept alive in a few ‘back-rooms’) was clearly a minor funding priority relative to ‘production’ sequencing. However, by 2001, the criticisms of the old technology grew and the call for affordable personal genomes became irresistible (Jonietz, 2001). In early 2004, the NIH-NHGRI posted a request for applications, and in October 2004 and August 2005, announced grant awards totaling $70 million for technology leading to human genome sequences for $100 000 in 5 years and $1000 in 10 years (http://www.nih.gov/news/pr/aug2005/nhgri-08.htm). As if the motivation were not already high enough, at the recent Genome Sequencing & Analysis Conference in Hilton Head (October 18), the prospect of a new X-prize arose to encourage this new Personal Genomics field. (The first X-prize, $10 million for re-usable spacecraft, was awarded in October 4, 2005 and is followed by a $50 million prize for orbiting.) Amid all of this positive reinforcement, some key points were left fuzzy—What exactly is meant by sequencing a human genome? What is the utility of personal genomes? What are the ethical, legal, and social implications (ELSI)? The time has come to sharpen these points up. As we begin to purchase personal genomes, we want to know what we are paying for…

The utility of the first personal genome is analogous to the first fax machine, web page, or computer. Until communities of resources build up, these revolutionary new tools serve mainly the ‘early adopters’. These initial participants are heroes and human guinea-pigs paving the way for potentially increasing utility for the general public…

George Church. The Personal Genome Project. Molecular Systems Biology. Published online: 13 December 2005.


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