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Human Genome Project

  • Teacher Resource
  • Posted 09.26.03
  • NOVA

In this video segment from NOVA: "Cracking the Code of Life," Eric Lander of MIT's Whitehead Institute explains the effort to decode the human genome -- from motivation to process to importance -- and explains what a genome map can do for science and what it can't -- yet.

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NOVA Human Genome Project
  • Media Type: Video
  • Running Time: 4m 08s
  • Size: 6.9 MB
  • Level: Grades 6-12

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Source: NOVA: "Cracking the Code of Life"

This resource was adapted from NOVA: "Cracking the Code of Life."


In February of 2001, scientists delivered a complete map of the human genome. In fact, two competing teams of scientists published two all-but-identical genome maps in different journals in the same week. This remarkable news made headlines all over the world because it meant that finally disease researchers would have a full account of every base pair in the human genetic code on which to focus their search for genetic disease. Just as remarkable, though, was the fact that the two teams, one government-led and one privately owned, finished their genome maps a full five years ahead of schedule.

The race to be the first to map the human genome revolutionized the science of genetics. Only a decade ago, scientists using traditional gene sequencing methods mapped just a few hundred base pairs a day. Then automation changed all that. The government-led Human Genome Project (HGP) poured millions of dollars into computers that could read a thousand letters a second. But even this highly advanced technique was conventional compared to the competing team's method.

The private biotech firm Celera changed the rules of gene sequencing. The company's so-called "shotgun" technique allowed Celera to sequence the entire genome in eight months -- a feat that took the HGP several years to achieve. As its name suggests, however, the shotgun technique is less than meticulous. While the HGP's traditional method kept track of where each decoded segment came from, Celera's method required that all of the randomly separated pieces of the genome be painstakingly reassembled. This not-inconsequential step took Celera supercomputers another seven months to achieve. Even so, the total time it took the company to map the genome was faster than anyone could have imagined.

The resulting genome maps have already proven to be far more than a detailed list of the three billion letters that make up our genetic code. Scientists are using them to identify and better understand the tiny functional portion of the genome: our genes.

Questions for Discussion

  • What were some of the strange and unexpected things that scientists discovered when they analyzed the human genome?
  • Why do scientists compare the DNA of bananas, worms, fruit flies, and humans? How can this information be helpful?
  • Scientists have likened the human genome to a parts list. Explain what they mean. Can you think of another analogy?

Resource Produced by:

					WGBH Educational Foundation

Collection Developed by:

						WGBH Educational Foundation

Collection Credits

Collection Funded by:

						National Science Foundation

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