MadSci Network: Genetics

Re: how much money has been spent on the human genome project?

Date: Mon May 19 10:02:16 2003
Posted By: Paul Szauter, Staff, Mouse Genome Informatics
Area of science: Genetics
ID: 1053156775.Ge

Dear Jane,

Here is a web page detailing the budget:

As pointed out on this page, the figure of $3 billion covering 1990-2003 does not just 
mean the sequencing of the human genome, but also a broad array of scientific activities 
related to genomics. There have been a number of benefits, and most of the benefits will 
show up in the future. Some of these benefits include:

1. The scientific value of the sequence of the human and model organism genomes, which 
will have a fundamental impact on medicine and biological science for decades to come (see 

2. The scientific and industrial value of a sequencing project of this scale. This project 
created a market for sequencing technologies, creating advances in speed and scale that 
might not have happened otherwise. It is comparable to what military contracts did for the 
semiconductor industry in the 1970s.

3. The training and career opportunities provided for many people in science. This project 
trained a new generation of young scientists to work in a way that their older colleagues 
could not possibly imagine.

4. An infusion of funding into Ethical, Legal, and Social Issues. A small part (3-5%) of the 
funding for this project funded studies in ELSI. The people doing this work had an 
opportunity to explore the social impact of the project; the scholars involved had a 
wonderful opportunity to develop their careers in a field that is often very short of funding. 
Please see:

Let me expand a bit on the scientific impact of this project.

When the project was first proposed, many in the scientific community were reluctant to see 
the project undertaken. The cost was unprecedented, there were many unknowns, and the 
value of the information was debated. Now that the sequence is essentially finished, it is 
clear with hindsight that these concerns were unfounded. The project was finished ahead of 
time and under budget. In order to demonstrate the feasibility and to develop technologies, 
the genomes of several other model organisms were sequenced. These included yeast, the 
fruit fly Drosophila, the nematode C. elegans, the mouse, and other species that are on the 
way. This will allow a complete catalog of all human genes and the comparative analysis of 
the equivalent genes in laboratory organisms.

The argument at the outset was not whether we should sequence the genome, but whether 
we should wait until it was cheaper. There was also some concern that funding of this 
project would deplete funding for other biological research. To some extent, this concern 
was addressed by using some of the human genome project funding for work on model 

The practical impact of this project will transform medicine. Up to this point, most drugs 
were discovered  by looking for natural substances that had pharmacologic effects and 
making many chemical look-alikes. There was no knowledge of the targets of these drugs. 
We are now in an era where drugs will be designed rationally, by looking for targets in the 
human genome and developing small molecules to affect them. As the cost of sequencing 
continues to fall, it is conceivable that individual patients will have parts of their genomes 
sequenced in order to determine how their own genetic individuality affects drug response. 
Many people experience severe reactions to particular drugs because of genetic variation in 
drug metabolism genes. Gene therapy will certainly also become more widespread.

The generalized advance in sequencing technology spurred by the human genome project 
has had other benefits. The rice genome was recently sequenced; other plant genomes will 
follow. This will allow tremendous advances in agriculture. Several agriculturally important 
animal genomes are also going to be sequenced. None of this is funded by the human 
genome project, but it has benefited from it.

Consider also the SARS epidemic. The complete SARS genome was sequenced within a few 
weeks of the reports of the first outbreak.

To address your original question the project was funded using taxpayer money through 
NIH and the Department of Energy (which has experience managing large projects). 

You also ask whether the money could have been better spent on other things.  This is a 
matter of opinion, and is not really a scientific question. First, it is possible that we might 
have carried out another large scientific project with a $3 billion price tag. Such a project 
would have to have practical impact that Congressman and the general public could 
understand. What if, for example, we asked a group of ten of the best physicists in the 
country to come up with a $3 billion project. They might propose building a huge particle 
accelerator, plan an extraordinary series of unmanned space missions, build a radio 
telescope on the far side of the moon, whatever. How could we pitch this project to the 
general public? It is very easy for people to understand the impact of biomedical science. It 
is not so easy to understand what the benefits of advances in our understanding of the 
universe would be. The consequence of this is that they don't get big projects unless they 
have political appeal, such as the Space Station. For the sake of comparison, NASA's annual 
budget is around $3 billion, most of which goes to the Space Shuttle and Space Station.

It is also a fair question whether we should have spent $3 billion on something outside of 
science. In round numbers there are just over 250 million people in the United States. That's 
$12 per person. We could have mailed everyone a gift certificate to and told 
them to educate themselves, but we certainly couldn't have provided health insurance to the 
40 million people in this country who don't have it. We might have used $3 billion to reduce 
the national debt, but since it is $6.4 trillion as I write this, that wouldn't have much of an 
impact. Please see:

For more on the Human Genome Project, please see:

Thanks for an interesting question. 


Paul Szauter
Mouse Genome Informatics

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