On June 26, 2000, President Bill Clinton announced the completion of the draft of the human genome at a press conference with the two project leads, Francis Collins and J. Craig Venter. A genome is all the genetic information of an organism. Scientists had conceived of the Human Genome Project in the 1980s, and, in the first half of the 1990s, expected it to be an endeavor that would go on for decades. But an unexpected technological revolution of faster computers and better chemistry accelerated the ten-year effort toward the finish line, just as the 20th century came to a close.
The American-led international effort cost more than $3 billion dollars and involved thousands of people. Since then, the last 23 years of the 21st century have seen a sea change in the landscape of genomics, from blue-sky basic science to mass-market consumer products. Companies like Nebula now provide entire genome sequences that are medical-grade quality for $200; down from a price point of $20,000 just 13 years ago. We’ve gone from a single mapped genome—that of humanity—to more than a million genomes. This is a case where quantity has a quality all its own; the commoditization of genomic sequencing has radically transformed how we do genetics.
Yet at the dawn of this brave new genomic era, it is not health and well-being outcomes that have been revolutionized. Rather, genomics as a window into the human past has vindicated Alfred Tennyson’s poetic assertion that nature is “red in tooth and claw.” Where a few decades ago archaeologists and historians had to cobble together inferences from pottery shards, slotting their data into theories that owed more to political fashions of the present than scientific facts of the past, today they can chart the rise and fall of peoples from the clear evidence of the genes.