What is the Human Genome Project?!?!?

Robert Robbins rrobbins at WELCHGATE.WELCH.JHU.EDU
Tue Jun 29 06:22:27 EST 1993

On 29 Jun 1993, Jordan A. Bortz wrote:

> Excuse me for being an ignoramus but:
> 	What the heck is the human genome project?

Short answer to a big question: in the US, the research is funded by the
National Center for Human Genome Research of the NIH, and by the Health
Effects and Life Science Research Division of the Office of Health and
Environmental Research of the Department of Energy.

As for what the project is trying to accomplish, try the following
computer analogy:  We now know that information is passed from parent to
offspring in genuinely (not metaphorically) digital form.  Each parent
contributes a 3.3-billion character long string of information, encoded as
nucleotide sequences in 23 chromosomes.  So, the intructions in, say, a
single human sperm cell are equivalent to 3.3 gigabytes of information
encoded on some mass storage device.  The goal of the human genome project
is (1) to obtain an image of that mass stoarge device (i.e., to get the
DNA sequence for the chromosomes) and (2) to reverse engineer the 3.3
gigabytes of files all the way back to the design specs (i.e., to
understand how these digitally encoded sequences work). 

For a longer version of this analogy, see: Robbins, R. J., 1992.  Database
and computational challenges in the human genome project.  IEEE
Engineering in Medicine and Biology Magazine, 11:25-34.

> I've heard the project is to map every chromosme in the human body.
> Well, okay. But how will you find out what each chromosome does? 

How would you go about reverse engineering codes, if all you had were the
binaries and if you didn't know the instruction set being used or even the
chip on which the codes would run?  A fair bit of cleverness is called
for, more than can be explained in a quick email response.

> Also, I've heard that something like 10% of the human genes have been
> patented already... IS this true? Can you really patent a gene? Who
> will own the patents to all the genes discovered by the human genome
> project?

Probably less than 5 % of human genes are even known, much less patented. 
However, it is possible to patent biological molecules if you have
developed ways to turn them into products.  For example, suppose heart
attacks are brought on, in part, because of the lack of some protein or
another.  If you can isolate the gene that codes for that protein, you can
then make that protein in quantity and sell it as a drug.  Pharmaceutical
companies have a great interest in patenting genes and other biological
molecules, if they can form the basis for developing therapeutical

As for who will own the patents, they will belong to whomever (1) develops
the technology to produce useful products and (2) files for patent
protection.  Under the technology transfer act passed during the Reagan
administration, primary intellectual property rights in work done with
federal support resides with the grantee, not with the government (subject
to a variety of restrictions).  This was intended to speed the flow of
ideas from basic research into the development of products, which is,
after all, what makes the economy grow and ultimately provides the tax
revennues to support basic research. 


Robert J. Robbins
Applied Research Laboratory                      Phone: (410) 955-9637
Johns Hopkins University                         FAX:   (410) 614-0434
2024 E. Monument Street
Baltimore, MD  21205                          

rrobbins at welchgate.welch.jhu.edu


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