Timeline | Watson and Crick | The Human Genome Project | Craig Venter and Celera | Year 2000


1953- Watson and Crick determine the the structure of DNA to be double helix

1983- Kary Mullis invents the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technique, which allows rapid reproduction of bits of DNA.

mid 1980s- Scientists begin to consider sequencing human genome

1990- International, publicly funded Human Genome Project formally begins

1997- Researchers, led by Ian Wilmut, at the Roslin Institute in Scotland clone a sheep, Dolly

1998- Craig Venter starts Celera Genomics

2000- The Human Genome Project and Celera jointly announce the completion of a rough draft of the genome

Watson and Crick

The first half of the 20th century saw a race to determine the structure of DNA. In February 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick made their breakthrough. When their seminal paper, describing DNA as a double helix, was published in April, it would revolutionize biology.

The Human Genome Project

In the mid-1980's, sufficient scientific breakthroughs had been made for scientists to begin considering mapping the genome. Watson was one of its early advocates. Congress complied with advocates' requests and funded the effort. At its formal inception in 1990, the goal was to sequence the genome by 2005 at an estimated cost of $3 billion.

The Department of Energy (DOE), followed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), was the first organization to head the endeavor of developing and preparing the Human Genome Project. With a synergistic relationship, the two organizations, along with connections to the private sector and the medical community, set out a plan for the first five years of the project. A full branch of the NIH, the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), had been formed to support research projects at various academic institutions and other private sites geared towards completing the human genome project goals. At this point in the history of the project, the technological means of accomplishing its goals were not adequate; scientists wanted to sequence all the 3,000,000,000 base pairs of human DNA, although the longest continuous human sequence to date was the human growth hormone, a mere 67,000 nucleotides in length. Thus, technological development was a primary phase in the endeavor.

The first five-year plan entailed such details as:
- basic data gathered would be organized and centralized in a huge electronic database, available for public use
- significant and hefty increase in the speed of current technology was required, if the entire genome was to be sequenced at a minimal cost to the government

The second five-year plan (just intiated in 1998) entailed:
- improving the already rapidly developing sequencing technology
- SNP (single-nucleotide polymorphisms) identification
- comprehensive analysis of gene expression
- protein analysis
- utility and facility of databases
- annotation

Eight years after it began, just seven percent of the genome had been sequenced.

Craig Venter and Celera

In 1991, Craig Venter was working for the National Institutes of Health. He published a paper on a new, more efficient method for identifying genes. NIH officials wanted to patent the numerous genes that Venter was now identifying daily using his technique. But Watson, then head of the NIH's Human Genome Project, dissented vigorously, and nothing came of it. Venter left the government and, backed by a venture capitalist, formed his own research facility. He upped the efficiency of sequencing dramatically, though his critics charge at the expense of accuracy, and in 1998, in partnership with PE Biosystems, founded Celera Genomics. Celera is from the Latin word for quick and Venter said he would fully sequence the human genome by 2001 for just $200 million. Celera utilized immense computing power (it is said to have the most powerful computing center outside of the Pentagon) in pursuit of the goal.

Year 2000

In early 2000, Venter said Celera would have a rough draft of the genome ready by summer. Public debate grew. Celera's scientific standards were criticized, as was its practice of patenting genes (although Venter has said he will eventually allow free use). Venter was portrayed as being cocky and as being disliked by the scientific community. The director of the National Institutes of Health's National Human Genome Research Institute, Francis Collins, was under pressure to reach an agreement too. In April, the two sides agreed to a joint announcement of the accomplishment. At a June 26, 2000 event at the White House, the announcement was made.

time.com Newsfile: The Genetics Revolution: Research. Viewed 9-16-00.
The Human Genome Project web site