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June 25, 2001

UCSC to host public forum on human genome research

By Tim Stephens

In May 1985, a group of eminent biologists gathered at UCSC to discuss a radical proposal put forth by molecular biologist Robert Sinsheimer, then chancellor of the UCSC campus. His idea was to launch a massive project to determine the complete DNA sequence of the human genome. It would be five years before the Human Genome Project was officially launched, and 10 more before project leaders announced with great fanfare the completion of a working draft of the human genome sequence.

Photo of speaker
Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, will give the keynote speech at the forum. Photo: Courtesy of the National Human Genome Research Institute
This summer, many of the participants in the historic 1985 meeting will gather again at UCSC along with other eminent scientists to discuss future directions for research on the human genome, now that the sequence is in hand.

A public forum will be held in conjunction with this scientific workshop, featuring a presentation by Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, and a moderated discussion by a panel of experts. The forum will address research on the genome and its implications for the future of medicine and society. It will take place on Saturday, August 25, from 1 to 3:30 p.m. in the Music Center Recital Hall. Admission is free.

The panelists will include Sinsheimer; Collins; Eugene Myers, vice president of informatics research at Celera Genomics; and Mary-Claire King, professor of medicine and genetics at the University of Washington. National Public Radio science reporter Richard Harris, a UCSC graduate, will serve as moderator.

The human genome sequence--spelled out in 3.2 billion units of DNA strung together on chromosomes--represents the complete genetic instructions for human life. Deciphering the genome has sparked a revolution in biomedical research, raising hopes for dramatic improvements in the diagnosis and treatment of disease, but also raising concerns about how genetic information and technology will be used.

In the public forum, panelists will address the ethical, legal, and social issues associated with genome research, as well as its anticipated benefits in medicine and other areas.

Although the bulk of the work on the Human Genome Project has been performed elsewhere, researchers at UCSC played a crucial role in assembling the genome sequence, and they continue to have a major role in the ongoing analysis of the human genome.

"UC Santa Cruz scientists launched consideration of this vast project in 1985 and then, 15 years later, played a key role in the integration of the massive data banks into a coherent whole," Sinsheimer said. "The campus can be proud of its role in this historic endeavor."

The first serious push toward sequencing the human genome actually began in 1984 when Sinsheimer proposed to UC President David Gardner that an Institute to Sequence the Human Genome be established on the UCSC campus. The proposal was not funded, but Sinsheimer couldn't let go of the basic idea. He discussed it with other molecular biologists at UCSC--including Harry Noller, Robert Edgar, and Robert Ludwig--and they decided to convene a workshop to explore the idea.

Participants in that 1985 meeting who will also attend the workshop this summer include Sinsheimer; Noller, now the Sinsheimer Professor of Molecular Biology at UCSC; geneticist David Botstein, now at Stanford University; and Leroy Hood, who now heads the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle.

The 1985 workshop planted the idea of sequencing the human genome within the core group of scientists who attended. One of them was Walter Gilbert of Harvard University, who became an ardent promoter of the concept. At around the same time, other scientists made independent proposals to sequence the human genome, notably Renato Dulbecco of the Salk Institute and Charles DeLisi of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Ultimately, the Human Genome Project was officially launched in 1990 as a joint project of the DOE and the National Institutes of Health.

UCSC re-entered the picture in December 1999, as the project neared its goal of completing the genome sequence. Project leaders asked David Haussler, professor of computer science at UCSC and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, to help with the analysis of the human genome. Before that work could get started, however, the genome sequence had to be assembled from fragmented data obtained by the project's sequencing laboratories.

This proved to be more difficult than anticipated, but UCSC met the challenge, thanks to the work of biology graduate student Jim Kent. Kent, whose efforts have been widely celebrated, wrote the computer program used to assemble the human genome sequence. He also created a web-based human genome browser. Kent finished the assembly in June 2000, just days before this landmark achievement was announced at a White House press conference.

Kent, Haussler, and other UCSC researchers continue to work on the analysis of the human genome sequence and the ongoing task of filling in gaps and updating the assembled sequence as new data become available.


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