Nicole Barna, a senior operations coordinator at the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Mass., holds a tray of human DNA that is undergoing the sequencing process at the institute May 31, 2001.

Credit: AP Photo

Cambridge: The Epicenter Of The Human Genome Project

April 17, 2015

If then Cambridge Mayor Alfred Velucci had his way back in 1976, we might never have mapped the human genome.

"This is a deadly serious matter" Velucci said at a 1976 meeting to decide whether the city of Cambridge should ban recombinant DNA research for a three year period. "I have made references to Frankenstein the past week. That was my way of describing what happens when genes are put together in a new way."

To applause from the attendees, Velucci asked, "Is there zero risk of danger? Do scientists ever exercise poor judgement, do they ever have accidents?"

But as MIT’s Dr. David Page, director of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, explains, the ban was battled back, and a transformation began.

It took 13 years, centuries of collective knowledge, and a worldwide effort to complete — and Cambridge was at the center of it all.

"As we sit here at my office in the Whitehead Institute at the edge of the MIT campus, within a mile radius of us are 150 biotech and biopharmaceutical companies all based on recombinant DNA research," Page said.

In the late 1980s, various fields of biology began to coalesce around a powerful idea — a project as ambitious as putting a man on the moon.

"Let’s make sense in total of our DNA, of our hereditary information," Page said.

Officially launched in 1990, it became known as the Human Genome Project.

"Actually, the term genome was coined at that time," Page said. "We didn’t have that word before, and it was a way of thinking about the whole. Let’s think about it systematically let’s think about it comprehensively."

It would be a blueprint of our genetic makeup, and would take a vast and coordinated effort by scientists from around the world to pull it off. But Cambridge — by then chock full of brilliant DNA researchers like Page — and centers like the Whitehead Institute, became ground zero for the audacious task.

"Whitehead Institute became the flagship of the publicly funded consortium to sequence the human genome," Page said. "And so the biggest share of sequencing the human genome was conducted right here at Whitehead institute."

The scope of the task was enormous: Determine the sequence of DNA that makes up each one of our genes, which determines everything from what color your eyes are to whether you’ll be susceptible to sickle-cell anemia.

"In each of our cells we have about 3 billion letters of DNA and we’ve got only four letters in the alphabet of DNA — it’s A, C, G and T," he said.

We’d spent decades learning how to read those four letters. Scientists would put those four letters, billions of times, all in the correct order, in one single book.

"So sequencing the DNA is saying to someone who already knows how to read, deliver me the text," Page said.

On April 14, 2003, two years ahead of schedule, scientists claimed victory. The Human Genome Project had succeeded. The textbook of our genetic makeup was complete. Now Page points out that we still have a ways to go before we know how to interpret all of this data — and there are still genetic mysteries left to solve.

"There are actually big parts — believe it or not, it’s a little secret — parts of the book that are so hard to read that we don’t know the grammar and we don’t even know how to assemble the text," Page said.

But what we do have is truly a basic blueprint of human life, now available to every scientist, every doctor, every student. Page says it has so fundamentally transformed the field of biology that it’s impossible to overstate its importance.

"It's almost as powerful as knowing the anatomy of the human body," he said. "We now have a map. All of biology, all of human biology, all of medicine is now in some sense organized around the understanding, the roadmap that's provided by the availability of the sequence of the human genome."

The human genome, sequenced thanks — in large part — to the big brains in the city of Cambridge. 12 years ago this week.

If you have a tale of forgotten Massachusetts history to share, or there's something you're just plain curious about, email us at curiositydesk@wgbh.org. We might just look into it for you.


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