Finding the Code: The Race to Sequence the Human Genome and What It Means

One of biology’s most spectacular achievements – the race to sequence the human genome – was billed as a way to end disease. Here’s where it led.

For teachers
  • Producer: Jill Rosenbaum
  • Editor: Sandrine Isambert
  • Associate Producer: Meral Agish
  • Associate Producer: Olivia Katrandjian

For Educators


This 13-minute video shows students how the human genome was first sequenced during the 1990s, touching off an initially optimistic search for gene-based solutions to curing common diseases. As scientists sought to quickly convert the genome into cures, they soon discovered that most diseases are caused by a complex array of genes, and that epigenetic factors complicate the search for a simple genetic solution. The video is most useful for lessons on heredity, gene expression and epigenetics.

Background reading

The race to sequence the human genome was seen as the race to end disease, but the reality has proven not so simple, or so easy.

The Human Genome Project was launched in 1990 with a 15-year timeline and a $3 billion budget to create a map that would locate and sequence every gene in our DNA.

The goal was to understand the hereditary factors in all diseases as quickly as possible, which was no easy task: the human genome is made up of some 6 billion chemical letters.

A map of the human genome was released in 2003, two years ahead of the projected deadline. Hopes were high that doctors would eventually cure diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, diabetes and even some kinds of cancer by attacking their genetic causes.

That goal has proved elusive. Diseases once thought to be caused by a single gene, like kidney cancer, are now known, thanks to the genome map, to be caused by at least 16 different genes.

Researchers have not found many drug interventions that are based on genetic discoveries, and they realize that the relationship between genes and illness is far more complicated than initially imagined.

Some researchers, aided by supercomputers, are sifting through genomes and health data to understand better the role that genes and the environment play in our health.

Lesson Plan 1: Biotechnology: Sequencing the Human Genome

Students will learn how the human genome was first sequenced, and how attempts to use this discovery to cure diseases has been complicated by epigenetics and the complexity of genetic disease factors.

  • How the human genome was first sequenced.
  • How epigenetic factors complicate the medical applications of human genome sequencing.
  • How the complex genetic causes of diseases complicate the search for gene-based cures.
Essential questions
  • When the Human Genome Project began, how did the leaders of the project think it would transform medical science?
  • What was “shotgun sequencing”? How did it accelerate the process for sequencing genes?
  • In the race to sequence the human genome, how was the public vs private competition ultimately resolved?
  • How many genes influence the onset of diabetes?
  • Common Core State Standards
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.1:Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.11-12.2:Determine the central ideas or conclusions of a text; summarize complex concepts, processes, or information presented in a text by paraphrasing them in simpler but still accurate terms.
  • Next Generation Science Standards
    • HS-LS Heredity: Inheritance and Variation of TraitsAsk questions to clarify relationships about the role of DNA and chromosomes in coding the instructions for characteristic traits passed on from parents to offspring.
  • AP Biology
    • Topic 6.5: Regulation of Gene ExpressionSkill 6.D: Explain the relationship between experimental results and larger biological concepts, processes, or theories.
  • AP Psychology
    • Unit 6: Developmental Psychology
    • Unit 2: Biological Bases of Behavior