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PeopleSpot > Human Genome Project

Human Genome Project

Genes are the basic building blocks of humans, but what are they made of? That's the question geneticists are trying to answer with the Human Genome Project. Begun in 1990 and scheduled to end in 2003, the project strives to decode the human blueprint. This is a lofty goal, considering there are about 100,000 genes in the human genome. As scientists eagerly await the results, they are grappling with ethical issues.

The project will be completed two years ahead of the original schedule. The History of the Human Genome Project describes the milestones of this massive effort.

The Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health govern the project. The main research sites are at U.S. universities, but scientists in 18 countries are participating in the effort. The Human Genome Organisation (HUGO) supports international cooperation on gene mapping.

Project leaders say the results will bring benefits, including the detection of genetic predisposition to a disease, the study of evolution through genetic characteristics and the identification of criminal suspects based on genetic evidence.

Genetics 101

DNA is the "Rosetta Stone of life and death, health and disease," according the Human Genome Project site. DNA, deoxyribonucleic acid, is the genetic code that determines a person's traits and characteristics. While the DNA of every person is remarkably similar, small variations in DNA sequences are what make each person unique. A gene is made up of a group of DNA strands. Each gene determines a characteristic, such as eye color or height. Genes compose the 24 human chromosomes. The Human Genome Project has completely deciphered five chromosomes.




For more detailed information, see the genetics lesson at The Science Behind the Human Genome Project and the Genome Glossary.

Ethics and Issues

As each new gene sequence is decoded, a new ethical issue is raised. Many arguments are made about the confidentiality and privacy of genetic material. If genetic testing becomes widespread, who will have access to this information? Some critics fear that this information will have devastating social effects. A person with a predisposed risk of heart disease might find it hard to find a job or get health insurance.

Parents may be able to choose the physical characteristics of children before they are born. The effects of such genetic modification on the human gene pool are unknown.

Even the research itself is raising ethical questions. Who owns the property rights to gene sequences? It is possible for a researcher to patent a gene? The Human Genome Project's Genetics and Patents page explains the pros and cons of this situation.

For more in-depth ethical and legal information, visit The National Reference Center for Bioethics Literature at Georgetown University. The Human Genome Project also has a division to address these issues.

Databases

For people familiar with genetics research, there are several online databases of genome maps. The National Human Genome Research Institute has "good raw data," said Dr. Patricia A. DeLeon, professor of human genetics at the University of Delaware. "They have a database for the genes that has been corrected." The Institute also offers more Genomic and Genetic Resources.

Other databases include the official Genome Database at Johns Hopkins University and the GenBank at the National Center for Biotechnology Information.




   --- M. Magnarelli and J. Britten



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