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Mapping Life

The story of the Human Genome Project
February 22, 2011

The completion of the Human Genome Project in 2000 marked the end of one stage of discovery and the beginning of another, more complex one. In his book Drawing the Map of Life: Inside the Human Genome Project, veteran science journalist Victor K. McElheny tells the behind-the-scenes story of the events leading up to the sequencing of the human genome and chronicles biologists’ subsequent—and ongoing—efforts to use their newfound knowledge to diagnose and treat diseases.

McElheny, 75, started working at a newspaper after graduating from Harvard in 1957. He wrote about breakthroughs in medicine and the launch of Sputnik, which took place that October, and quickly specialized as a science reporter. “Science seemed to be the single most important force in the history that was unfolding,” he says. Over the next few decades, he worked as a correspondent for Science, as the science editor of the Boston Globe, and as a technology reporter for the New York Times. In 1982 he founded the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships program at MIT, which he led until he retired in 1998. Now a visiting scholar in MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society, he has time to pursue specific interests in greater depth.

McElheny decided to go deeper into the genome project in 2003. He had just published his second book, Watson and DNA: Making a Scientific Revolution, and asked Sydney Brenner, a Nobel laureate in medicine and a pioneer in genetics and molecular biology, what he thought of it. “He said, in his usual sardonic way, ‘I suppose somebody had to do it, but the real story is the genome,’ ” McElheny recalls. Two months later, he heard MIT biology professor Eric Lander, who was about to become the founding director of the Broad Institute, speak about the use of genomic technology in determining the best way to treat particular cases of cancer. The two events convinced him that he had found the subject of his next book.

As he learned more about the genome project, ­McElheny says, he was particularly surprised by the level of disclosure and collaboration among competing scientists. Generally when scientists are scrambling to achieve a specific goal, he says, there’s “a desire to hold onto your results until you’ve milked everything you can out of them.” But during the race to map the genome, “people had to grope toward a kind of coöperation on a bigger scale and with greater intensity than biologists were used to.”

McElheny also points out that unlike other scientific ventures that have shaped history, such as the space program and the atomic bomb, the genome project did not originate with a government directive. “[It] was really more of a bottom-up project, not an inside-the-Beltway project,” he says. “It emerged out of the scientific community, out of lengthy and sometimes quite heated discussions. It came from a lot of different places, related to the fact that it was so coöperative in its nature. It bubbled up.”

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