Triumph of science: The complexity of the human genome is revealed

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What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form, and moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel!

In writing Hamlet, William Shakespeare understood the wonder of men (and women) but could never guess at how much a miracle of creation humans are. That wider understanding has grown through the modern scientific application of noble reason and infinite faculty.

Last week human self-knowledge reached a new plateau. After five years, 442 scientists around the world succeeded for the first time in describing the architecture of the human genome and how it works. (It will cheer the beleaguered supporters of Penn State that a team from the university played a major role in the project).

The project provided insight on how disease occurs and significantly altered old ideas of so-called junk DNA, revealing that at least 80 percent of the human genetic code, or genome, is active. The breakthroughs not only prompt the rewriting of textbooks but are also likely to pay big dividends for promoting health in the years ahead.

The project, called ENCODE, for Encyclopedia of DNA Elements, was funded by the National Institutes of Health. The findings, which were reported last Wednesday, reveal highly complex networks that tell our genes what to do and when, with millions of on-off switches.

Given that complexity, this new plateau of understanding, "breathtaking" in the words of Dr. Eric Green, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, which organized the project, appears to be still in the foothills of what one day will be learned. What a piece of work is man.

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