Guest contributor — HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology
Thirty years ago, in December 1984, Richard Myers, a young postdoctoral scholar at the time, joined 18 other researchers at the Alta ski resort near Salt Lake City, Utah. Unbeknownst to the scientists convened there, this meeting, organized by the Department of Energy and the International Commission for Protection Against Environmental Mutagens and Carcinogens, would lay the foundation for what would soon become an international effort to sequence the entire human genome. The participants had gathered to discuss the repercussions of an event nearly 40 years earlier: was it possible to track radiation-induced mutations in the DNA of the descendants of those exposed to the atomic bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki? At the height of the cold war, the question was pressing. For how many generations did the echo of such radiation exposure linger?
The answer, unfortunately, was elusive. Technology at the time was too limited to accomplish such a task. But discussions at the small meeting, which came to be known as the Alta Summit, sparked one of the most massive, most successful and most expensive biological research endeavors in history — the Human Genome Project.
Now the director and president of the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology in Huntsville, Ala., Myers and the other researchers played a pivotal role in the subsequent sequencing effort. Myers co-led one of the first human genome centers in the U.S., and his lab, together with the newly formed Joint Genome Institute in Walnut Creek, Calif., was responsible for sequencing about 11 percent of the genome, including all of chromosomes 5, 16 and 19.
HudsonAlpha is continuing the mission set forth 30 years ago, to improve human lives by applying what we learn from the study of genomics to patient care and to improving our natural resources. In the 30 years since the meeting, researchers have not only learned the entire sequence of the three billion nucleotides that make up the human genome, but they’ve also sequenced thousands of other species. They’ve learned to compare and contrast genome sequences among and within species to trace evolution’s winding path, and they’ve begun to shine a light on what has been called the “dark matter” of human DNA. They’ve compared populations from around the globe to discover ethnic and racial differences critical to the success of personalized medicine, and they’ve learned new ways to improve crop productivity to feed an ever-growing world.
“The HudsonAlpha Institute rests on the foundation established by the Human Genome Project,” said Myers. “A major focus of the institute is to use the subsequent advances in sequencing technology to make a difference in human health and disease, including brain diseases, cancer, autoimmune conditions and heart disease. Last year alone we analyzed more than 2,500 whole human genomes. We collaborate with hundreds of scientists across the globe, and have launched more than 2,000 projects with groups around the world. All this was unthinkable 30 years ago.”
The scale of possibility at HudsonAlpha shows how far the technology has come. The institute recently purchased 10 ultra-high-throughput sequencers from Illumina, Inc. Together, the sequencers can sequence about 18,000 human genomes each year, at a cost of about $1,500 each.
“As always, HudsonAlpha is focused on collaboration and data sharing,” said Myers. “We don’t function as a silo; we spread the information around. We’re also heavily committed to the idea of public and private collaboration. HudsonAlpha presents a unique model of a nonprofit research institute. We actively recruit private companies to share our space, and we now have 27 here with us. There’s a lot of cross pollination that occurs, when our faculty members interact with the company researchers.
“I can’t believe how much faster and easier it’s been in the six years that I’ve been a part of HudsonAlpha. We’re extremely excited at the potential to transform human health and crop biology. We are still growing and working to be on the front of the discovery wave.”