Philosophical Society of Washington

The Human Genome Project: Unravelling the Instructions for Creating Life

Robert J. Robbins
Applied Research Laboratory, Johns Hopkins University

2022nd Meeting Abstract
Friday, January 21, 1994 at 8:15 PM


At conception, information is passed from parent to progeny as digitally encoded instructions. Each human sperm and egg carries a linear string of 3.3 billion nucleotides of DNA packaged into 23 chromosomes, similar to gigabytes of instructions stored on 23 mass-storage devices in a computer system. The goal of the Human Genome Project (HGP) is obtaining and understanding a copy of those instructions for humans and for several other species. The computer equivalent would be extracting the binary files from a 3.3 gigabyte hard drive, then reverse engineering the files all the way back to the design specifications. In fact, the Human Genome Project is nothing but the effort to create the most important database ever attempted—the database of instructions for building people.

The HGP is an international effort to characterize all the human genetic material by improving genetic maps, constructing physical maps of entire chromosomes, and determining the complete sequence of the DNA in the human genome. Parallel studies are being carried out on selected model organisms. The ultimate goal is to identify all of the more than 100,000 human genes and to render them accessible for further biological study. Information obtained as part of the HGP will dramatically change almost all biological and medical research. Comparative genomic data will provide the basis for the most definitive study of evolutionary relationships possible. In addition, both the methods and the data developed as part of the project will benefit investigations of many other genomes, including a large number of commercially important plants and animals.

About the Author:

Mr. Robbins received an A.B. in oriental history from Stanford University. In 1970, he enrolled in Michigan State University, earning a B.S., M.S., and a Ph.D in zoology before joining the faculty in 1975. In 1987, he went to the National Science Foundation to "facilitate the computerization of biology." After two years as NSF's program director for Database Activities in the Biological, Behavioral, and Social Sciences, he accepted a position in 1991 as Director of the Applied Research Laboratory in the William H. Welch Medical Library at Johns Hopkins, where he also held an appointment in the Computer Science Department and served as director of the informatics core of the Genome Data Base, the central repository for data generated by the HGP. Currently on leave from Hopkins, he serves as Program Director for Bioinformation Infrastructure in the Office of Health and Environmental Research of the U.S. Department of Energy.

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