The Age of Discovery was the age of da Gama, Columbus, and Magellan, an era when European civilization reached out to the Far East and thus filled many of the voids in its map of the world. But in a larger sense, we have never ceased from our exploration and discovery. Science has been unstinting over the ages in its efforts to complete our intellectual picture of the universe. In this century, our explorations have extended from the subatomic to the cosmic, as we have mapped the heavens to their farthest reaches and charted the properties of the most fleeting elementary particles. Nor have we neglected to look inward, seeking, as it were, to define the topography of the human body. Beginning with the first modern anatomical studies in the sixteenth century, we have added dramatically to our picture of human anatomy, physiology, and biochemistry. The Human Genome Project is thus the next stage in an epic voyage of discovery -- a voyage that will bring us to a profound understanding of human biology.
In an important way, though, the genome project is very different from many of our exploratory adventures. It is spurred by a conviction of practical value, a certainty that human benefits will follow in the wake of success. The product of the Human Genome Project will be an enormously rich biological database, the key to tracking down every human gene -- and thus to unveiling, and eventually to subverting, the causes of thousands of human diseases. The sequence of our genome will ultimately allow us to unlock the secrets of life's processes, the biochemical underpinnings of our senses and our memory, our development and our aging, our similarities and our differences.
It has further been said that the Human Genome Project is guaranteed to succeed: Its goal is nothing more assuming than a sequence of three billion characters. And we have a very good idea of how to read those characters. Unlike perilous voyages or searches for unknown subatomic particles, this venture is assured of its goal. But beyond a detailed picture of human DNA, no one can predict the form success will take. The genome project itself offers no promises of cancer cures or quick fixes for Alzheimer's disease, no detailed understanding of genius or schizophrenia. But if we are ever to uncover the mysteries of carcinogenesis, if we are ever to know how biochemistry contributes to mental illness and dementia, if we ever hope to really understand the processes of growth and development, we must first have a detailed map of the genetic landscape. That's what the Human Genome Project promises. In a way, it's a rather prosaic step, but what lies beyond is breathtaking.
To Know Ourselveswas prepared at the request of the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Health and Environmental Research, as an overview of the Human Genome Project.