What is the Human Genome Project?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The Human Genome Project was an international effort to map the complete human genome, for the purpose of scientific and medical advancement. Although the project was spearheaded by American government agencies, scientists in 18 additional countries contributed skills and data. The result of the Human Genome Project was a publication of a more or less complete copy of the human genome, which is available to members of the public for free on a number of websites which allow people to browse the genome in a variety of ways.

The Human Genome Project created a relatively complete copy of the human genome.
The Human Genome Project created a relatively complete copy of the human genome.

The genome of an organism consists of all the genetic material, including coding for specific genes. The primary interest of researchers was locating particular genes in the chromosomes, and exploring common genetic variations. However, they were also interested in the genome as a whole, not just genes, as there is a great deal of material to sift through. The so-called “junk DNA” may not appear to be doing anything functional, but it could be important nonetheless.

Gene sequencing can help scientists research the history of human evolution.
Gene sequencing can help scientists research the history of human evolution.

Researchers started exploring the idea of mapping the human genome in the 1980s, and the project was officially launched in 1990. It took 13 years to come up with a published copy of the human genome, and this copy sequenced around 92% of the human genome, ignoring certain areas which were highly repetitive and hard to sequence. The Human Genome Project contributed immensely to the sciences, and also allowed people to start exploring genetic abnormalities and their causes.

Every human being has a slightly different genome. Samples from four individuals were used in the Human Genome Project to create a usable composite which would provide some insight into genetic variations, and additional samples are constantly being sequenced. In addition to providing information about the location of particular genes, sequencing also allows researchers to explore the history of human evolution, and to look at the specifics of unique ethnic groups.

Although the Human Genome Project is officially over because its goals have been accomplished, researchers are constantly refining to the knowledge gained in this scientific effort, and they also utilize the published human genome in a variety of work. The project has also raised a number of interesting ethical questions, as well as explorations of legal and social issues, as the sequencing of the human genome opens the door to a number of situations, ranging from the potential for genetic profiling to the misuse of scientific data to support particular political or social positions.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


What are the ethical issues of the human genome?



You may be right in assuming that the genetic pattern is deep and difficult, but I think that with a proper understanding of the depth of nuance in the genetic code, new breakthroughs can be made in our self-understanding.


This project seems to chart a set of matrices which is beyond our ability to fully comprehend, and explain an organism which is nuanced beyond words. This organism is us (humanity). Even though the human genome project has charted much of our DNA, I find it unlikely that we will ever fully understand genetic patterns.

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