Thursday, 24 June 2010

Celebrating 10 years since the completion of the Human Genome Project

A new programme has begun on BBC Radio 4 called "The Age of the Genome" as a part of the 10 year anniversary of the completion of the the Human Genome Project. This ~30 mins programme is narrated by the Evolutionary biologist, and champion of public understanding of science, Richard Dawkins. Whilst most people will be aware of Prof. Dawkins for his some what vocal criticism of religion, he stands out in my mind as man who's priorities are what he calls "concious raising". This doesn't just apply to the criticisms of religion, but also, and far more importantly, to increasing the general publics understanding and appreciation of the work carried out by hard working physicians and scientists around the globe. In particular his book, The Selfish Gene, a book that for me had a large impact on my initial understanding of genetics during the first year of my undergraduate studies.

The programme itself is largely made up of interviews with the principle players in the Human Genome Project; Francis Collins, John Sulston, Craig Venter and sound bites from other emninent scientists, including James Watson. For those not familiar with any of these names, or only a passing familiarity, Francis Collins is the current director of the US National Institute of Health and one of the heads of the HGP. Craig Venter is a more household name, particularly in recent weeks with the construction of a cell with an entirely synthetic genome which has raised so much debate. John Sulston headed up the UK branch of the HGP based at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge, UK. And finally James Watson, one of the co-discoverers of the 3D structure of DNA, alongside the late Francis Crick and Rosalind Franklin.

The programme describes the process of Sanger sequencing, the technique that made possible the completion of the human genome, alongside other computational technological advances, including accurate sequence alignment and sequence construction. As is likely with any science programme involving RD, there is a discussion of the evolutionary implications of the HGP, including the comparisons with the nematode worm, Caenorhabditis elegans, and the surprising finding that our genome only contains ~20,000 genes (the current count from the 1,000 Genomes project is 21,370).

I'm personally looking forward to the continuation of this radio series, whilst it may not necessarily be a steep learning curve for myself, it will certainly give me invaluable hints into how to present scientific advances to the lay audience.

Episode one can be listened to below in the embeded player, or directly from the BBC Radio 4 Website.

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