A pioneer of genomics passes away

The British biochemist Frederick Sanger died on Tuesday 19 November 2013, at the age of 95. A pioneer of genomics, he was the recipient of two Nobel Prizes, one for his work on the structure of proteins (1958) and a second for sequencing nucleic acids (1980).

The most well-known of all nucleic acids is no doubt deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). The molecular structure of DNA was modelled by Francis Crick and James Watson back in 1953. Upon seeing a photograph of a DNA molecule taken by Rosalind Franklin, the men realized that DNA was made of two intertwined strands, in the form of a double helix.

In 1977, Frederick Sanger and his colleagues at the UK Medical Research Council’s Molecular Biology Laboratory in Cambridge developed a method of reading complete DNA sequences, leading to the first complete genome, that of a bacteriophage called φX174, a virus that invades and often destroys its bacterial host cells. In 1981, Frederick Sanger and his colleagues even managed to sequence a short section of the human genome that was contained in the mitochondria.

Thanks to the work of Sanger and others, scientists had all the cards in hand by the 1980s to go for the ‘big one,’ to determine the exact sequence of the human genome. When the Human Genome Project got under way in 1990, it was the largest international collaborative undertaking in the history of science. In the end, it took hundreds of scientists working in labs around the world some 13 years to complete the sequence, at a cost of US$ 2.37 billion.

From the outset, UNESCO took a stance to promote the open sharing of genomic data and to make sure that scientists from the developing world were not excluded from the project. One fear, even in the scientific community, was that a private lab would claim ownership of the genome or specific genes and patent this knowledge. This prompted UNESCO to hold a symposium, in 1990, on Human Genome Research: Strategies and Priorities, attended by 250 scientists, including Nobel laureates and leaders of national human genome research projects.

Three years later, UNESCO set up an International Bioethics Committee composed of experts and, in 1997, adopted the Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights. This built on the Bermuda Principles agreed by international partners in the Human Genome Project, whereby sequence data were to be shared publicly within 24 hours of sequencing. Concerned by the potential misuse of human genetic data, the UNESCO experts subsequently drafted an International Declaration on Human Genetic Data which was adopted in 2003, the year the human genome was finally published.

Today, UNESCO is supporting the successor to the Human Genome Project, the Human Variome Project, which is cataloguing the variety of human genetic mutations worldwide to improve diagnosis and treatment.

These milestones in the history of genomics were celebrated at UNESCO headquarters in June this year, via a conference and exhibition on Sixty Years of DNA, from the Double Helix to the Human Variome, through the Human Genome.

Read more about this passionate story in UNESCO’s journal, A World of Science:

Contact: m.nalecz(at)unesco.org; ibsp(at)unesco.org