The genome is just the start for biology

July 14, 2000

In its early days, cynics often termed the Human Genome Project an advanced case of "physics envy" - the biologists' lust for a big project to rival the particle accelerators and space telescopes of the physics-based competition.

But physicists probably appreciate more than most what a triumph the near-completion of the human genome is. And as we report this week (pages -30), this vast gathering of information is only the start of the story.

The human genome project has involved a revolution in laboratory science, but was made possible by new database technology and by the internet, on which its results are published worldwide for free, along with the genomes of a growing number of other species. Biology will always be dependent on laboratory work and fieldwork. But future biologists will also need statistical and information technology skills to make the most of the opportunities opening up. Fortunately, they will not need the high level of mathematical skills that generations of physicists have required. Databases are getting more intuitive. It is no longer necessary to cover pages with equations to mine for connections within big data sets.

The new genetics has already had effects on teaching. Students learn that many of the systems that drive plants, animals and other organisms are identical, especially mechanisms of development and repair. Biologists of the future will need new analytical skills. They will also need an awareness that whatever our genetic closeness to other species, humans have unique duties, brought into focus by current debates on topics such as stem-cell research.

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