Although great strides have been made in gene therapy in a relatively short time, its potential usefulness has been limited by lack of scientific data concerning the multitude of functions that genes control in the human body. For instance, it is now known that the vast majority of genetic material does not store information for the creation of proteins, but rather is involved in the control and regulation of gene expression, and is, thus, much more difficult to interpret. Even so, each individual cell in the body carries thousands of genes coding for proteins, with some estimates as high as 150,000 genes. For gene therapy to advance to its full potential, scientists must discover the biological role of each of these individual genes and where the base pairs that make them up are located on DNA.
To address this issue, the National Institutes of Health initiated the Human Genome Project in 1990. Led by James D. Watson (one of the co-discoverers of the chemical makeup of DNA) the project's 15-year goal is to map the entire human genome (a combination of the words gene and chromosomes). A genome map would clearly identify the location of all genes as well as the more than three billion base pairs that make them up. With a precise knowledge of gene locations and functions, scientists may one day be able to conquer or control diseases that have plagued humanity for centuries.
Scientists participating in the Human Genome Project identified an average of one new gene a day, but many expected this rate of discovery to increase. By the year 2005, their goal was to determine the exact location of all the genes on human DNA and the exact sequence of the base pairs that make them up. Some of the genes identified through this project include a gene that predisposes people to obesity, one associated with programmed cell death (apoptosis), a gene that guides HIV viral reproduction, and the genes of inherited disorders like Huntington's disease, Lou Gehrig's disease, and some colon and breast cancers. In April 2003, the finished sequence was announced, with 99% of the human genome's gene-containing regions mapped to an accuracy of 99.9%.