Did the Human Genome Project exist?

Speaker: Dr Miguel Garcia-Sancho # University of Edinburgh

17th Feb 2014

15:30 - 17:00

Conference Room, David Hume Tower

Abstract 

The main overarching question of my talk will be 'What do we talk about when we talk about the Human Genome Project (HGP)?' I will show that, contrary to what it is assumed today, the HGP was not a cohesive international initiative, with a clear origin and pathway of progress. During the mid-to-late 1980s, a wide array of national human genome projects emerged with divergent approaches and framed in sometimes conflicting scientific values and disciplinary traditions. Building on this, some scholars have claimed that the 'Human Genome Project' did not exist. My purpose, rather than entering into ontological debates, is to show that what we now recognise as the HGP is the result of a long chain of alliances and strategic choices, and that by analysing and historically situating them it is possible to critically assess the directions of current genomic and post-genomic research.

I will focus upon the first initiative to construct a physical map of the human genome in the UK, named the Human Genome Mapping Project (HGMP), proposed in 1986 and officially launched by the Medical Research Council in 1989. The HGMP was aimed at gradually building a human genome map by pooling the results of existing research teams in molecular biology and clinical genetics in Britain. In 1992, the UK strategy shifted to the proposal of an institution which would undertake the mapping and sequencing of a large part of the human genome without the necessity of external inputs. This led to the establishment of the Sanger Centre, funded by a multi-million Wellcome Trust grant with the objective of completing one third of the human genome (the rest was mainly done by other four US laboratories in what became known as the genomic ‘G5’). What we now understand as the HGP is the result of the effort of this selective club.

 

Speaker Biography

Miguel Garcia-Sancho is a Chancellor's Fellow based in STIS, where he is developing a five-year project on the history of concerted large-scale mapping and sequencing initiatives (the science, politics and socio-economic expectations behind the human and animal genome projects which proliferated after the mid 1980s). His research interests are in the history of contemporary biomedicine, with special emphasis on the transition between molecular biology and new forms of knowledge production at the fall of the 20th century:  biotechnology, bioinformatics and genomics. Miguel's book Biology, Computing and the History of Molecular Sequencing: From Proteins to DNA (1945-2000) was recently published by Palgrave-Macmillan. He previously worked as a journalist and is interested in science communication and public engagement.