The Year of the Genomes

Not too long ago, determining the precise sequence of DNA was slow and tedious. Today, genome sequencing is a billion-dollar, worldwide enterprise. Terabytes of sequence data generated through a melding of biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, computer science, and engineering are changing the way biologists work and think. And in 2000, biologists deciphered many new genomes, including that of humans. In its 22 December edition,* Science marks this torrent of genome data as the Breakthrough of the Year.

A year ago researchers had completely spelled out the genome of only one multicellular organism, a worm called Caenorhabditis elegans. Now sequences exist for the fruit fly, human, and the plant geneticist’s beloved Arabidopsis thaliana. Not far behind are drafts of the mouse, rat, and zebrafish genomes, as well as two species of puffer fish. In addition, some 60 microbial genomes are now on file, including those of the villains that cause cholera and meningitis. Most of these data are accessible to scientists free of charge, catalyzing a vast exploration for new discoveries.

As a result, the study of genome data is now in hyperdrive. By comparing mouse to human, worm to fly, or even mouse to mouse, a new breed of computer-savvy biologists is hacking through the thickets of the DNA code, discovering not just genes, but also other important bits of genetic material, and even evolutionary secrets. We are learning, for example, that we have a lot more in common with more distantly related organisms than we thought.

This explosion of genetic knowledge comes with some heavy ethical and social baggage: It is not clear how society will deal with the growing potential to manipulate genomes, and many governments are grappling with how to protect individual rights once the technology exists for reading each person’s genome. But the allure of the new knowledge has made the quest irresistible. This year’s revolution may well be the breakthrough of the decade, perhaps even the century, for all its potential to alter our view of the world we live in.

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