Coming Soon: Your Personal DNA Map?

March 7, 2006

The Human Genome Project took nearly 13 years and millions of dollars to map the human genome, our genetic blueprint for life. (See a quick overview of human genetics.)

Numerous universities, private corporations, and federal agencies, including the United States National Institutes of Health (NIH), collaborated on the massive international project, which completed its initial work in 2003.

Now many of these same institutions and scientists have embarked on a more ambitious project: decoding our DNA at a fraction of the cost and much more quickly.

The goal—set by the National Human Genome Research Institute at the U.S. National Institutes of Health—is to cut the cost to sequence DNA to a hundred thousand U.S. dollars by 2009 and to about a thousand dollars by 2014.

If scientists succeed, many people could buy a digital readout of their personal genome.

Proponents say the information could revolutionize medical diagnosis and treatment. Doctors, for example, could predict diseases years before symptoms occur.

"Part of the reason why this technology is advancing is because we are drafting behind the field of computing," said pioneering genome researcher George Church, a genetics professor at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts.

Church, who previously worked on the Human Genome Project, now leads an initiative known as the Personal Genome Project, which he hopes can make personal genome sequences affordable.

He likens the technological advances and exponential cost reductions in genome sequencing to the 1990s Internet revolution. "In 1993 there was a [tipping point] with the growth of the Internet. There will be a year that we will say genetics also took off," Church said.

DNA Sequencing

Living organisms are defined by their DNA. Thousands of these microscopic strands of genetic material are found in every living cell. The molecules contain the blueprint for biological development, determining everything from hair color to blood type.

To read this genetic code, scientists rely on sequencing techniques that break apart DNA strands then duplicate and read them.

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