The Human Genome Project
Decoding the Mystery of Man
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Rarely does scientific research spark the excitement of a sporting event. But back in June 2000, the race was on. Scrambling to decode the secrets of human genes, the U.S.-based National Institutes of Health (NIH), the world’s largest institution funding medical research, and Celera Genomics Corp., a biotech company, both announced that they had deciphered 85 to 90 percent of the human genome.
Sometimes likened to the race to put a man on the moon, the decade-old Human Genome Project effort to decode our genes was churning out 12,000 letters of genetic code every minute of every day, creating a list that totaled approximately 3 billion when it was finally completed in April 2003.
More than 1,100 biologists, computer scientists and analysts at university laboratories in six countries worked to complete what some are calling biology’s version of the Book of Life.
The glory of your genome
You may have heard much about the human genome in recent years, and there’s more to come. But what exactly is the genome, and what does it mean for us?
In elementary school we learn that everything we see is made up of atoms. We learn that atoms combine to make molecules. But we only hazily understand how tiny atoms and molecules come together to make you and me the living creatures we are—filled with the wonder, complexity, potential and choices we live with daily.
How do atoms and molecules work together to create the unique being that is you? The search to discover the answer to that question is perhaps the greatest story of sleuthing in science.
All biological life is made up of an astonishingly complex blend of molecules. They combine, break down and recombine into the same or a myriad of other forms of molecules. Continuously, day in and day out, trillions of actions and reactions of molecules occur every second in processes that provide energy, food and cell maintenance for our bodies.
What blueprint, what set of instructions, tells these atoms and molecules what to do? The Human Genome Project aimed to help solve that mystery—and in such breathtaking detail that even the scientific world is awestruck.
The related processes all revolve around molecular structures called chromosomes at the fundamental level of the beginning of life. Chromosomes function in the primary unit of the body, the human cell. In your chromosomes is the genetic document—a chemical instruction set written in chemical code—that tells your body how to arrange, structure, absorb and expel atoms and molecules.
The totality of your genetic instructions is your genome. Each of us has a unique genome, our own chemical genetic instruction set. In one way of looking at it, each human being is a genome.
You received—or became—your genome at conception. The instant your father’s sperm with its 23 chromosomes paired with your mother’s 23 chromosomes in a fertilized egg, something unique and totally new was created—you!
The design of the human cell is brilliant, its performance stunning.
You started life as a single cell. From that one cell you virtually exploded into being. Every growth pattern, stage and process of your body occurred like clockwork—from fetal development to birth, infancy, childhood, adolescence and adulthood. For your first 18 years, on average you added 100 million cells to your body every minute.
Such dizzying growth is so perfectly programmed from your own set of instructions contained in that first cell that by age 20 you became an adult of more than 100 trillion (100,000,000,000,000) cells—differentiated into heart, spleen, skin, bone, muscle, liver, stomach, eyes, intestines and, most important, brain. Scientists estimate that 40 percent of the genome is devoted to your brain development alone.
How did such astonishing complexity come about?
Stunning design of DNA, genes, chromosomes
The design of the human cell is brilliant, its performance stunning. The most marvelous biological mystery solved in the last 50 years was the understanding of how genes drive all the developments of the body’s cells at the molecular level. To discern the process, scientists had to learn how to analyze the functions of the tiniest cellular structures for feeding, repairing, eliminating waste, dividing and even dying.
As the analytical methods of microbiology became more refined and microscopes ever more powerful, the glory of the structure of chromosomes was revealed.
The key that unlocked the door was understanding DNA—shorthand for deoxyribonucleic acid. Although an acid, DNA is anything but destructive. It is the chemical parent of all the cells of the body and is found in each cell’s nucleus (hence it is a nucleic acid), the command center of the cell.
DNA is the epicenter of biotech research because it functions at the heart of all systems of the human body at the molecular level. It is both a substance and an instructional blueprint for every one of the 100 trillion cells making up all body tissue. DNA directs each component of the cell in literally trillions of cellular processes that take place in your body every second of your life.
DNA is structured in a ladderlike formation of two strands with rungs creating a double-helix shape. The ladder forms a continuous, giant molecule called a chromosome. Chromosomes are unlike any other molecules in size and composition.
To better understand these tiny structures, let’s compare a chromosome to water. The water molecule has two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom written as H2O, with a molecular weight of 18. By comparison, a chromosome molecule has a molecular weight of 80 billion. For a molecule, a chromosome is incredibly long and narrow. Like an endless and almost impossibly thin thread, it is coiled in the cell’s tiny nucleus. With a diameter of 2 nanometers, it is a million times smaller than the distance between the two smallest marks on a ruler. Yet if it were stretched to full length it would be about 1.25 inch long.
DNA’s two long intertwined strands appear like stilts made of an alternating phosphate and a sugar. The steplike rungs between the strands are made up of paired bases of nitrogen compounds identified by the letters G, C, A and T (the first letters of the four kinds of bases: guanine, cytosine, adenine and thymine). These are the only substances in DNA, hence the genome consists of only these four—but in seemingly endless sequences.
These compounds tell every cell of your body what to do. They communicate through certain sequences on the genome. Special bands of these compounds are our genes.
Genes are paired on each chromosome with sequences that account for specific traits and physical characteristics. Each body trait requires one or more pairs of genes. Such things as eye color, shape of body parts and susceptibility to diseases all are found within the gene pairs of the genome. Researchers also are discovering that certain personality dispositions seem to have genetic components (a concept discussed in the Bible several thousand years ago).
There are perhaps 30,000 genes in the human genome. The goal of the Human Genome Project is to decode every one.
The universe within
Though the smallest unit of the body, cells are no longer the simple structures they once were thought to be. Each cell has many thousands—sometimes hundreds of thousands—of structural components and processes controlled by chromosomes in the nucleus.
Although the universe is thought to have 100 billion galaxies with an estimated 200 billion stars each, some scientists acknowledge that each human body appears as complex and amazingly designed as the universe itself. The human brain has 100 billion neurons, with untold trillions of connections and patterns of endless wiring sequences.
We are unconscious of the incomprehensible complexity of our own creation. We are not aware of what goes on in our cells as our genome tells our cells to assemble amino acids into proteins, proteins to make cell walls, and cell walls to split and divide. We go about our lives unaware of the constant stream of virtual miracles that keep us alive, alert and functioning.
Missing pieces of the puzzle
How did such an astonishingly complex process begin? How did the billions of atoms in each DNA molecule arrange themselves perfectly for the self-perpetuation we call life?
One of the greatest problems with the science of genetics is that it involves dissecting the fundamental particles of life with no scientific framework for understanding the human genome, where it came from or what its ultimate purpose might be.
Although that framework is available, it won’t be found under a microscope or through scientific study. Only one logical explanation exists for the brilliant design of the entire biological life cycle contained in a blueprint of unimaginable complexity. But the explanation isn’t the blind, random, mindless chance inherent in the evolutionary perspective held by so many scientists.
Scientific discoveries can be a two-edged sword.
How did cells, DNA and chromosomes come about? Perhaps the greatest scientific proof that we were designed by a higher power is this: The process of one genome creating a living, self-perpetuating organism cannot happen over time. It has to be right the first time, and it must entail literally billions of designed elements that must be in place and functioning perfectly, or else the cell cannot exist and reproduce. The self-replicating cell exists only because its inherent intelligent systems—each involving billions of functions—interact perfectly. If they don’t, it is dead.
The chromosome and cell are so unimaginably complex that they could never have evolved through random processes from nothing, even if given the endless time spans evolutionists require for their theory.
Evolutionists are at a loss to explain, for example, how and why heart tissue, liver tissue, skin and blood are distinctly different and have dramatically different functions. Yet, astonishingly, each cell contains the same DNA. A liver cell’s DNA is identical to a brain cell’s DNA. How each cell knows its identity, function and position in the body remains a mystery.
Much more than molecules
Scientific discoveries can be a two-edged sword. They can lead us to marvel at the intricate and perfect design that proves the existence of a much greater intelligence than ourselves, or they can force us to focus so much on the details that we lose sight of the big picture.
Regrettably, the genetic revolution appears to be taking our minds off the bigger picture—the spiritual potential of human existence. We are tempted to obsess on the physical manipulations of genetic engineering as possible solutions to the problems of life and death while overlooking missing pieces of the puzzle that provide true and lasting solutions.
Are you only the sum total of the preprogrammed DNA of your chromosomes? Of course not. Each person is much more than his or her genome. The millions of genes unique to each person are the platform for what the Bible describes as beings created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27; 9:6).
In this time of dazzling technological progress, the relevance of God and the Bible are critically important tools for cutting through the labyrinth of data and technical jargon. As genetic biologists compile their new blueprint of life, the classic blueprint for life—the Bible—remains ever relevant. Its counsel is timeless—though, to our peril, it is increasingly disregarded. Let’s consider.
The Bible goes far beyond the Human Genome Project in describing the nature of the complete human being. It casts light on the greater truths beyond the data of man’s genes. In telling us that God created us in His image, it reveals that we have a spiritual heritage far more astounding and compelling than the physical heritage revealed through the Human Genome Project, incredible though it is.
The genome of God
The central teaching of the Bible is that man exists for an ultimate spiritual plan and purpose. Human life is only the physical means to this spiritual end, not the end in itself.
God sent Jesus Christ as the manifestation of God’s design for man. He revealed the nature of the connection between man and the supernatural realm Jesus called the Kingdom of God. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth…No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him” (John 1:14, 18).
The central teaching of the Bible is that man exists for an ultimate spiritual plan and purpose.
What astonished Jesus’ contemporaries—and was rejected by the leadership of the ancient world—was His message that man can enter the divine realm, the Kingdom of God. They rejected that teaching largely because it required a conversion and commitment to God, a repentance from the selfish, greedy, grasping nature in every one of us. In His day, just like today, people didn’t want to hear about their ultimate problem and God’s solution.
The heart of our problem is that man must receive a divine nature not to be found in the human genome. It’s our only way out of a death trap of man’s own making.
Jesus of Nazareth was the perfect, living example of the divine nature. The Bible describes Him as the perfect reflection of God the Father made visible to the world: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son…He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being” (Hebrews 1:1-3, New Revised Standard Version).
Jesus said He was the model God sent for a new life: “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). The world crucified Him. But He then became the pattern of the supernatural resurrection for each of us if we follow Him into the Kingdom of God.
The Bible describes the ultimate purpose of life as entering this Kingdom, another realm of existence. Jesus focused on this theme throughout His ministry (Mark 1:14-15). It remains a message just as relevant as it was 2,000 years ago.
At the heart of the message is the story of a family—not the family of man, to which all of us belong courtesy of our amazing genetic heritage, but the family of God!
God’s purpose for us
The apostle John summarizes God’s ultimate purpose for us with these words: “Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God! Therefore the world does not know us, because it did not know Him. Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure” (1 John 3:1-3).
Sadly, even Christianity is in total confusion about His message. You, however, don’t need to be.
Just as you can know Jesus Christ’s original message, He can become the model for the transformation of your life. He is the standard, the pattern, not just for this physical life, but for the spiritual perfection and immortality God will freely give to those willing to believe Him and take Him up on His offer. He is the bridge between the marvel of the human genome and the far more awesome spiritual genome available to us in the Kingdom of God.
Are you interested in God’s genome project? It’s in the Bible. And it is good news!