History of Genomics

Fred Sanger

Genomics is a relatively new discipline. Although the DNA was first isolated as early as 1869, it took more than one century for the first genomes to be sequenced. The history of modern genomics begins in the 1970s, however, it was possible only due to important discoveries in the field by a small group of scientists in the period after the Second World War. It would therefore be unfair to start history of genomics without mentioning the breakthroughs two decades earlier.

Modern genomics would not be possible without the technological advances in the 1950s such as creating isotopes and radiolabel biological molecules, while the greatest breakthrough was most certainly the description of the structure of the DNA helix that was made by James D. Watson and Francis H. C. Crick in 1953. This allowed determination of the DNA replication, gene expression, protein synthesis, etc. Just as important were the later technological advances and advances in methodology, in the first place the automated DNA sequencing and polymerase chain reaction (PCR), a technique which was developed in the early 1980s and allowed DNA amplification from extremely small amounts of material. Automated DNA sequencing, on the other hand, dramatically increased the pace of genome sequencing. Both automated DNA sequencing and PCR played the key role in the Human Genome Project which, however, was completed only in 2007.

The first genome was sequenced by Fred Sanger who sequenced the genomes of a virus and mitochondrion in the early 1970s. He and his team also created techniques for sequencing, data storage, genome mapping and other techniques and methodologies which still play an important role in genomics. For his contribution to genomics, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1980 (for the second time). Genome sequencing of different organisms still remains an important part of genomics, however, the knowledge of full genomes paved the way to the so-called functional genomics which is focused on the study of DNA at the gene level with an aim to understand the relationship between the organism’s genome and phenotype.

Walter Fiers is another scientist who played an important role in modern genomics. In 1972, he and his research group from the Laboratory of Molecular Biology of the University of Ghent in Belgium became the first to sequence a gene. They sequenced the gene of Bacteriophage MS2, an RNA virus which infects the E. coli bacterium. Thus Bacteriophage MS2 became the first organism to be completely sequenced.

In 1995, Hamilton O. Smith and his team from The Institute for Genomic Research became the first to sequence a genome of a free living organism – that of Haemophilus influenzae. Since then, genomes of various organisms including human (mostly sequenced in 2001, completed in 2007) have been sequenced at a great pace. Today, we have complete sequences for more than 2,700 viruses, over 1,000 bacteria and archaea and 36 eukaryotes, with the new ones being sequenced virtually on a daily basis.