Progress, and Applications
of the Human Genome Project
Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy Human Genome Program
Human Genome News Archive Edition
Human Genome News, January 1998; 9:(1-2)
Predictions of biology as “the science of the 21st century” have been made by observers as diverse as Microsoft chairman Bill Gates and U.S. President Bill Clinton. Already revolutionizing biology, genome research has spawned a burgeoning biotechnology industry and is providing a vital thrust to the increasing productivity and pervasiveness of the life sciences.
Technology and resources promoted by the Human Genome Project already have had profound impacts on biomedical research and promise to revolutionize biological research and clinical medicine. Increasingly detailed genome maps have aided researchers seeking genes associated with dozens of genetic conditions, including myotonic dystrophy, fragile X syndrome, neurofibromatosis types 1 and 2, inherited colon cancer, Alzheimer's disease, and familial breast cancer.
Current and potential applications of genome research will address national needs in molecular medicine, waste control and environmental cleanup, biotechnology, energy sources, and risk assessment.
On the horizon is a new era of molecular medicine characterized less by treating symptoms and more by looking to the most fundamental causes of disease. Rapid and more specific diagnostic tests will make possible earlier treatment of countless maladies. Medical researchers also will be able to devise novel therapeutic regimens based on new classes of drugs, immunotherapy techniques, avoidance of environmental conditions that may trigger disease, and possible augmentation or even replacement of defective genes through gene therapy.
In 1994, taking advantage of new capabilities developed by the genome project, DOE formulated the Microbial Genome Initiative to sequence the genomes of bacteria useful in the areas of energy production, environmental remediation, toxic waste reduction, and industrial processing. As a result of this initiative, six microbes that live under extreme conditions of temperature and pressure had been sequenced completely as of August 1997. Structural studies are under way to learn what is unique about the proteins of these organisms—the ultimate aim being to use the microbes and their enzymes for such practical purposes as waste control and environmental cleanup.
The potential for commercial development presents U.S. industry with a wealth of opportunities. Sales of biotechnology products are projected to exceed $20 billion by the year 2000. The project already has stimulated significant investment by large corporations and prompted the creation of new biotechnology companies hoping to capitalize on the far-reaching implications of its research.
Biotechnology, significantly fueled by insights reaped from the genome project, will play a significant role in improving the use of fossil-based resources. Increased energy demands, projected over the next 50 years, require strategies to circumvent the many problems associated with today's dominant energy technologies. Biotechnology promises to help address these needs by providing cleaner means for the bioconversion of raw materials to refined products. In addition, there is the possibility of developing entirely new biomass-based energy sources. Having the genomic sequence of the methane-producing microorganism Methanococcus jannaschii, for example, will enable researchers to explore the process of methanogenesis in more detail and could lead to cheaper production of fuel-grade methane.
Understanding the human genome will have an enormous impact on the ability to assess risks posed to individuals by environmental exposure to toxic agents. Scientists know that genetic differences make some people more susceptible—and others more resistant—to such agents. Far more work must be done to determine the genetic basis of such variability. This knowledge will directly address DOE's long-term mission to understand the effects of low-level exposures to radiation and other energy-related agents, especially in terms of cancer risk. [Reprinted from the DOE Human Genome Program Report, in press.]
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