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November 2, 2010

Director of Human Genome Institute speaks at first Watson lecture

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Co-discoverer of DNA structure James D. Watson (S.B. ‘47) and his sister Betty attended the annual Jean Mitchell Watson lecture, named after their mother, Friday at the Biological Sciences Learning Center.

The lecture, “Fulfilling the Promise of a Sequenced Human Genome,” featured the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) Dr. Eric Green.

James Watson, who along with his sister endowed the lectureship, introduced Green and spoke briefly on his experiences at the U of C, noting that it took him a while to “get over how hard the University of Chicago was.”

Green delved into the potential for current and future research in the field of genomics. He outlined the increased relevance of genomic medicine, an approach to health care tailored to an individual’s unique genetic blueprint.

“The Human Genome Project wasn’t the end but the beginning of everything,” Green said. “I firmly believe that the central mission for genomics is to establish the path to the realization of genomic medicine.”

“Roughly 5 percent of the 3 billion letters of the human genome are under very strong evolutionary selection, and therefore likely to be functionally important. Using this knowledge about the variants in the human genome can help in conferring risks for genetic disorders,” Green said.

Emphasizing the tremendous amount there still is to learn about the human genome, Green suggested the most well-preserved parts of the genome can help scientists understand common diseases that are a great burden on the health care system.

Projects such as the 1000 Genomes Project and the ENCODE Project are cataloging all the functional DNA sequences in the human genome in an effort to determine how conservation of genes can give us information about the function of different sequences.

Green believes genomics has far-reaching implications in advancing our ability to diagnose and treat disease. “I think that is what we realistically have to regard in respect to genomic medicine. It is a marathon. It is a compelling marathon. It’s going to be a long run but an exciting run.”

Green said his priority in advancing the confluence of theoretical science and improvements to medicine is to break down the “bottlenecks” that occur throughout the process of scientific discovery.

Green began his position 11 months ago at NHGRI, which receives more funding directed to genomics from the government than any other organization in the United States.

“I was there on day one of the human genome project and I was there at the NHGRI on the last day of the human genome project. Genomics has been a major part of my life,” he said.

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