Ushering in a new era for potential scientific advances, a group of scientists from around the world announced yesterday in Washington that they have mapped a complete sequence of human DNA.

Shabina Khatri
Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, announces the successful completion of the human genome project in Bethesda, Md., yesterday,

“This is really a landmark scientific accomplishment,” said Prof. Miriam Meisler of the University’s Human Genetics Department.

A rough draft of the human genome was announced in 2000 but Meisler said it still had a number of holes in the sequence.

But the new and completed sequence reaches an accuracy of 99.9 percent and scientists say the code is as complete as it will ever be.

“What we’ve got now is what we’ll have for all eternity,” Francis Collins, head of the National Human Genome Research Institute, said in an interview with New Scientist.

Collins was an assistant professor in the Department of Human Genetics at the University from 1984 until 1993 before becoming head of the NHGRI, which leads the consortium of the 16 international institutions, involved in the completion of the DNA sequence.

Beginning in 1990, scientists hoped to complete the project of sorting though the 35,000 genes in a genome in 15 years, said Meisler.

Completing the project ahead of schedule and under the $3 billion budget, the sequence took less than 13 years to finish and cost $2.7 billion.

“Many thought that it was not feasible when the project began,” Meisler said. “In fact … they had to develop a lot of new technology that was not available in 1990,” she added.

Scientists are already speculating how this knowledge could revolutionize medical treatments.

Meisler said the next step is to try and understand the function of all the 35,000 genes in an effort to identify genes that effect disease.

“Before we had a more complete knowledge of the gene sequence, we had to look though all the genes to find the ones causing the disease, which was very time consuming,” Meisler said.

She added that it took 10 years to identify the gene that causes Huntington’s disease.

Having full knowledge of the human genome sequence could also contribute to the development of drugs to target genes that could be modified by disease. Meisler said that a complete map of the human genome has the potential to have a tremendous impact on a treatment for cancer.

“Right now at the University we’re working on cataloging which genes go up or down with different types of cancer,” Meisler said.

The completed DNA sequence is accessible to scientists all over the world through computer databases run by the NHGRI.

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