The human genome

When the Queen opened the Blackfriars Millennium Bridge across the Thames in 2000, it was only two-thirds complete. The original plan had been that she would process across the bridge; for some incomprehensible reason, this plan was not followed. (Incidentally, I really wish that the Queen had asserted her authority on that occasion by saying “You finish the bridge, then I’ll open it.”)

Something similar happened with the sequencing of the human genome. It was announced to a great fanfare in June 2000. The first scientific papers were not published until February 2001 (ten years ago next week). At that time, the sequencing was only 90% complete, was interrupted by about 250000 gaps, and contained a large number of errors. A much better version was published in 2004, about 99.7% complete and with only about 300 gaps. Today we have not only the original genome, but a project to sequence 1000 different human genomes has been completed. This has partly been helped by technological advances: the cost per base of sequencing has fallen by a factor of 105 in the past decade, far surpassing Moore’s Law.

How can I speak with such authority? Because of a review article in Nature by Eric S. Lander, director of the joint Harvard–MIT Broad Institute, and lead author of the 2001 Nature paper about the sequencing. And why do I mention it here? Because Eric was my second doctoral student.

He is a shining example of someone who made a big change of field and became highly successful in his new field. His thesis was on a new approach to difference sets based on coding theory and the local-to-global principle of algebraic number theory. This became a book, Symmetric Designs: An Algebraic Approach, in the London Mathematical Society Lecture Note Series.

Eric told me that once, long after he had moved from mathematics into genomics, and had made his name in his new field, he gave an invited talk at an AMS meeting, under the umbrella of “mathematics applied to other fields”. On the plane going to the conference, he found himself sitting next to someone who was obviously a mathematician. They fell into conversation and introduced themselves, upon which the following conversation ensued: “I’m Eric Lander.” “Not the Eric Lander, of Symmetric Designs: An Algebraic Approach?”

Eric said he was delighted. And in turn, I was delighted when he gave a talk at my 60th birthday conference with the title “The Human Genome: An Asymmetric Design”.

Following on from my previous post, it’s not often that I get two such boosts to my pride within two days of each other!

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About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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