Dawn of an era

The Human Genome Project has transformed biology and medicine

TWENTY YEARS ago, on June 26th 2000, those running the public Human Genome Project and its private-sector shadow, a firm called Celera Genomics, decided to declare victory. In a simultaneous breasting of the tape, each published a “working draft” of the genome. The broker, Bill Clinton, hosted the chief scientists at the White House. Hyperbolic comparisons were made to the Apollo project to land people on the Moon.

Unlike Apollo, though, this announcement marked a beginning rather than an end. Genomics is now so embedded in biology that it is hard to recall what things were like before it. Those first human sequences cost billions of dollars to obtain. Today, with the advent of new technologies, a full sequence costs about $200, and less detailed versions are cheaper still. It is as if, to use Apollo as the analogy, regular shuttles to the Moon had become available at prices an average family in the West could afford—and the more adventurous might now be considering a trip to Mars.

Researchers with a hypothesis to test can, for instance, turn to biobanks containing details of tens or hundreds of thousands of people—their medical records, education,…