Eric Green: The Audacity of Solving Grand Challenges

Geneticist and Medical Researcher
In the Human Genome Project, multiple countries and thousands of scholars proved how a "grandly large project" could be completed if it has "a very defined goal."
  • Transcript


Eric Green:  So the idea of completely reading out the letters of the human genome which basically meant decoding our blueprint came to sort of crystallization in the late 1980s.  And the reason for that was the recognition that if we could get foundational information about our blueprint it would set up a series of studies that would help us better understand human biology and eventually human diseases that might lead to our ability to improve human health.  But that was an audacious task.  It would require an industrialization, if you will, a scallop of a scientific effort that was really unusual for biomedical research.

You know, biomedical researchers traditionally they have laboratories of, you know, six or ten people.  They work on profoundly difficult problems and they like to explore.  They like to sort of ask big questions.  This was very different.  This was a very focused effort.  A very defined agenda.  Sequence the human genome.  To do that was gonna require multiple countries.  It was gonna require thousands of scientists and it was gonna require a number of years – originally slated for 15 years and it ended up taking 13 years.  That is why the analogy to putting the man on the moon has often come in because the idea that was a very focused goal.  We are going to do something.  It’s gonna be a grandly large project requiring many people but a very defined goal.  We’re gonna put a person on the moon.

And so that was something that biomedical researchers looked at and said, “Wow, we never do anything like that.”  Until the Human Genome Project.  And I think that’s really the first example in biomedicine of a defined large scale project.  I would say in hindsight now looking back on it ten years ago when we finished the project, I think biomedical researchers have gotten much more comfortable with doing these large science endeavors, recognizing that we still need lots and lots of individual scientists working around the country and around the world pursuing important biomedical research problems.  But at the same time when you have a big, big question or a big, big problem putting together a consortium of scientists in a very organized way is something we’ve gotten much more comfortable with, especially in genomics.

Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler and Dillon Fitton