Age Of The Genome [World Service]


01Discovery20100728Richard Dawkins decodes the discoveries and mysteries of the human genome sequence

Explorations in the world of science.

In a new four part series, evolutionary biologist Professor Richard Dawkins decodes the discoveries and mysteries surrounding the human genome sequence.

Ten years ago this June, an international army of scientists announced that they had succeeded in completing their first draft of the genetic book of human life.

They had read most of the three billion genetic letters of the DNA instruction manual which resides in our chromosomes. It was an achievement worthy of an international press conference with President Bill Clinton in the White House.

The Human Genome Project involved thousands of scientists in many different countries, cost hundreds of millions of pounds and took more than ten years. It was the first big science project for biology.

But what have been the benefits and advances a decade on?

The human genome sequence has led researchers to discover hundreds of genes implicated in our risk of common ailments such as heart disease, diabetes and schizophrenia. Before the sequence they knew of only a handful. Other discoveries are providing clues to novel therapies to treat inherited diseases which are currently incurable.

Extraordinary advances in genome sequencing technology are accelerating the medical progress. Your genome could now be fully sequenced in just three weeks for less than £10 000. It will not be long before it will cost no more than a hospital scan. A full genomic screen may become part of our routine health care within the next ten years.

In spite of the advances, there have been some surprises and deepened mysteries. One of the greatest shocks was the finding that we have far fewer genes than scientists had assumed before they read out our genetic instructions. It takes no more genes to make a person than it does to make a simple microscopic worm. What makes a man different from a worm lies more in what researchers now calling the Dark Matter of the genome - 300 million letters of genetic code which work in currently mysterious ways.

02Discovery20100804Richard Dawkins explores what the DNA of chimps and extinct Neanderthals says about us

Explorations in the world of science.

What can we learn from the DNA of chimpanzees about what it took for humans to evolve? What do genes extracted from fossil Neanderthal bones add to the story of our origins?

These are some of the questions which evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins explores in the second part of this series, marking the 10th anniversary of the sequencing of the human genome.

In June 2000, scientists of the Human Genome Project announced that they had worked out the three billion genetic letter code of the human body. Since then, many other animals have had their genomes decoded. The list includes the mouse, dog, the duck-billed platypus, the chicken and the chimpanzee, to name but a few. Comparing the As, Gs, Cs and Ts in our genome with those of other animals allows scientists to illuminate the story of our ancestors' evolution with extraordinary insights.

The techniques for processing and decoding DNA have become so advanced that it is now even possible to reconstruct the complete genetic code of creatures which died tens of thousands of years. This has been done for our closest evolutionary cousins, the Neanderthals, by extracting shattered DNA fragments from 40,000 year old bones and piecing them together. The leader of this project, Svante Paabo, says it still "blows his mind" when he thinks about what it's now possible to do with ancient DNA.

03Discovery20100811Richard Dawkins looks at the revolution in medical research after the human genome project

Explorations in the world of science.

Ten years after scientists decoded and sequenced the human genome, Professor Richard Dawkins looks at the transformation in research on diseases such as cancer, diabetes and malaria.

When an international army of scientists announced that they had succeeded in reading out the entire genetic instruction manual for the human body, commentators declared the dawn of a new age in medicine. A decade on, the revolution has not yet affected the health care for most of us. So what has been happening behind the scenes in medical research labs, and how are we going to benefit?

The discovery of genes that play roles in conditions such as cancers, diabetes and heart disease has accelerated at a rapid rate since medical researchers gained access to the sequence of three billion molecular letters in the genetic book of life. The technology for analysing the genomes is becoming fast and relatively cheap. It took more than ten years and about one billion dollars to read the first human genome sequence. Now it takes a couple of weeks and a few thousand pounds. Before long it will cost just a few hundred pounds. Within a few years, it may be quick and cheap enough to offer us complete DNA scans as part of our routine health care.

But what would they be able to tell us?

04Discovery20100818Richard Dawkins talks to Craig Venter about the creation of synthetic life.

Explorations in the world of science.

Genetic tests at birth, designer babies, synthetic life and resurrected mammoths. In the final part of this series, Richard Dawkins talks to Craig Venter and other leading scientists about the potential powers of genome science in the future.

In May this year, researchers at the J Craig Venter Research Institute announced they had succeeded in creating the world's first synthetic organism, dubbed 'Synthia'. They had constructed the entire genetic blueprint of a microbe from the raw chemical building blocks of DNA - a man-made chromosome built from scratch. This artificial genome was then transplanted into another bacterial cell, and 'Synthia' was born.

As Craig Venter explains to Richard Dawkins, this is the only organism on the planet with a genetic ancestry that cannot be traced to the primordial ancestor of life on Earth. Its origins are a computer and a chemistry lab on the east coast of the United States. But what is the point?

Craig Venter's vision is to use the techniques to devise unique 'designer' organisms for producing, for example, environmentally-friendly fuels - microbes that make hydrocarbon fuels from carbon dioxide they suck out of the atmosphere.

Richard Dawkins asks how Venter reacts to the charge he is playing God.

The programme also looks at other controversial scenarios raised by humanity's powers to scrutinise the genome. Will we be able to screen the genetic blueprint of new born babies for their lifetime risk of conditions such as obesity and Alzheimer's disease? In the future, should we allow prospective parents to choose embryos based on their complement of genes for intelligence, or let them add genes to boost brain power or physical prowess? And will it be possible to use ancient DNA to bring woolly mammoths back from dead?