One of the most important developments in the field of biology over the past century was the Human Genome Project (HGP)—the ten-year U.S. government-spearheaded effort that culminated in the first complete sequencing of a human genome in 2000. The HGP launched the field of genomics, transformed medicine, and largely gave birth to the modern biotechnology industry.

The original idea and impetus for the HGP came from DOE’s Office of Science (then known as the Office of Energy Research). At the time, the sequencing of a whole human genome was viewed as an all-but-impossible task. But based on the historical experience of the office with large scientific endeavors (“Big Science”) dating back to the Manhattan Project, there was confidence that with sufficient federal resources, the task could be accomplished. The ostensible reason for the initiative was DOE’s interest in better understanding the genetic effects of radiation exposure, but there was clear awareness that success in the project would have much broader consequences for both science and society.

Beginning in 1990, the DOE Office of Science partnered with the National Institutes of Health in sponsoring the effort. The sequencing of the 3 billion base pair human genome took a full decade and $3.8 billion dollars. 

Today, a human genome can be sequenced inside 24 hours, and for a modest price, consumers can purchase a DNA sequence that will reveal their ethnic lineage going back generations.

Over the years, the DOE Office of Science has been a major force in spurring the technology development and innovation that have transformed genomic sequencing from a Herculean task in the 1990s into today’s routine tool of science, medicine, and industry. What started as a technological challenge has blossomed into an explosion in “omics” techniques, gene-based metabolic analyses, design of new pathways, and a host of new systems approaches to understanding biology. Genomic science is now an integral part of biological research, whether performed in a test tube, investigated in the environment, or used to improve industrial bioprocesses. Genome-based science underpins DOE’s current efforts in bioenergy and environmental research and today’s biotechnology revolution.

Three DOE national laboratories led DOE’s participation in the original sequencing effort: Lawrence Berkeley, Lawrence Livermore, and Los Alamos National Laboratories. In the late 1990s, they combined forces to establish the DOE Joint Genome Institute (JGI).

JGI remains in operation today at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory as the only federally-funded, high-throughput genome sequencing and analysis facility for plants and microbes with relevance to energy and the environment, sequencing over 200 trillion base pairs per year. This sequencing is playing a critical role in expanding our understanding of plants and microbes and their vital role in the environment, as well as providing the knowledge needed to re-engineer such organisms for energy production and a range of other applications. 

All this is helping to establish the knowledge foundation for a new bio-economy, which holds the promise of producing fuels and a wide range of products from renewable resources using re-engineered plants and microbes. Such is the focus of research being carried on at the four DOE Bioenergy Research Centers. The bio-economy promises to provide a major new source of wealth-generation while producing fuels and products with more environmentally friendly materials and methods. DOE genomics today is helping lay the scientific groundwork for this new era.