The details make you dizzy. The terminology turns you numb.
But when the average person looks at the big picture, the Human Genome Project meets an important rule of thumb for good science, says Maynard Olson, director of the University of Washington Human Genome Center.
"If you can't explain the research you're doing to your next door neighbor, it should give you pause," he says. "The Human Genome Project was never that difficult to explain."
After more than a decade of data collection and number crunching, the Human Genome Project has produced the molecular blueprint of a human being. By identifying 30,000 to 35,000 distinct genes embedded within the long chemical sequence that forms human DNA, an international army of scientistsincluding Olson and others from the UWhave captured the code of life.
Their reportpublished last February in Nature magazinelaunched skyrockets. And why not? "The human genome holds an extraordinary trove of information about human development, physiology, medicine and evolution," reads the report's introduction.
Some compare the genome to a window on the essence of what it means to be human. Through it people hope to see fantastic advances unfolda cure for cancer, an antidote for aging, a test for the risk of heart disease and other illsall made possible by understanding the molecular machinery that drives our bodies.
"It caught the public's imagination," says Olson, "because they can grasp what it's all about."
Or can they?
While the basic biology and the potential payoffs behind compiling a complete tally of human genesotherwise known as a genomemay have penetrated the Zeitgeist of the new millennium, many of the subplots surrounding this scientific milestone probably have not.
Chief is a rivalry between public and private scientists chasing the same prize: the honor, satisfaction and opportunitiesaltruistic as well as economicdangled by cataloging the human genome.
At stake, according to some, is the future of science. Will it be increasingly controlledand perhaps manipulatedby private corporations that hoard their data to maximize profits? Or will it remain essentially a public endeavor in which research is shared, scrutinized and built upon by all?
The Human Genome Project refers to the work of the International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium. Formed in 1990, the coalition consists of 20 groupsincluding the UW Genome Centerfrom the U.S., the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Japan and China.
But that was before the commercial potential of possessing the human genomeand selling research data and patenting genesdrew private enterprise into the quest. In 1998, Celera Genomics Group announced it would launch a competing projectand finish three years sooner.