A rough draft of the entire human genetic code was unveiled today, hailed as 'Biology's Apollo landing', 'the outstanding achievement of human history' and even as 'the language in which God created Life' (Bill Clinton). Does the first proof of our DNA dictionary really deserve such hyperbole? After all, even though we've finished reading it, we still understand only a few hundred of its many thousands of words.
The moon landing marked the end of the space race, a stunning achievement of little obvious immediate benefit. But it did give us a whole new perspective on our world, and marked the beginning of a new technological age. In the same way, understanding the human genome could eventually provide medicine with a new, holistic basis. More important than a knowledge of each individual gene will be an understanding of the myriad ways in which they work together, and uncovering the variations that underlie cancer, heart disease, hundreds of inherited conditions and individual drug responses. Perhaps we will at last see an end to all those simplistic scientific and media explanations of the 'a gene for..' variety.
Of course, the benefits of the project will not appear overnight and, for the moment, there is plenty of ammunition for those keen to play down its significance. Chief amongst the criticisms are that it has cost too much money, and that it will only help those living in the developed world. But tracking down the gene responsible for Huntington's Disease took several teams of scientists ten years. Once the 'gold standard' human genetic sequence is available, probably in three years time, similar gene hunts could be carried out in months, perhaps weeks - and for a fraction of the cost.
Many of the eventual benefits of the moon landing were unforeseen spin-offs of the technology - including, famously, Velcro. Similarly, the computers developed to crunch through the three billion DNA base-pairs of human code can sail through the few million that make up the average bacterial genome with relative ease. Diagnostic tests, treatments and vaccines for the infectious diseases that plague the developing world may be among the benefits of the genomic age of medicine. Eventually, the Human Genome Project could change our world even more profoundly than the moon landing did.