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Welcome to Genomics History Week

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By | From the Collections

With the first section of the papers of geneticist John Sulston now catalogued and the recent addition of the digitised Alan Coulson papers online at Codebreakers: Makers of Modern Genetics, we’ve decided to make this Genomics History Week at the Wellcome Library blog.

From DNA to genomes

The DNA double helix is iconic – whole books have been written about its place in popular culture – and the contested story of its discovery is well known. This is because of the availability of personal accounts by some of the key players and access to many of their original papers deposited in historical archives. The full story of the Human Genome Project (HGP) has yet to unfold.

DNA double helix and sequencing output

The DNA double helix with genomic sequencing output in the background. Wellcome Image no. B0004877.

The HGP was as much a phenomenon of ‘Big Science’ at the turn of the 21st century as the Large Hadron Collider. A whole range of laboratory techniques, large scale processes and – crucially – innovative new computer systems and software for mapping, cloning and sequencing DNA and proteins were developed in order to achieve the ‘gold standard’ Human Genome published in 2004.

sequencing on the human genome project

DNA sequencing for the Human Genome Project at the Sanger Centre. Wellcome Image no. B0002538.

Over the course of around 40 years teams of scientists developed techniques for sequencing the genomes of relatively simple organisms such as the lambda phage virus and the C. elegans worm before tackling the 3 billion base pairs of the human genome.

Early genomics

You can see evidence of these early developments in the digitised papers (in Codebreakers) of Sydney Brenner and Fred Sanger from the 1970s and 1980s. It was Sanger’s groundbreaking ‘shotgun’ sequencing technique that was adopted for the HGP. The most recent addition to Codebreakers, the Alan Coulson papers provide another chapter in the story.

Coulson worked with both Sanger and Sulston, and in his digitised papers are the early signs of large scale genomic science for the C. elegans genome. Data recorded on index cards is replaced by large computer printouts in a process of mapping key sections then detailed sequencing of the whole genome.

For historians, as well as the scientific content of these archives, of particular interest are the social and cultural contexts in which the science occurred. The HGP happened in the face of commercial competition and the politics of large scale public funding for an international consortium of researchers dispersed over several centres (and continents). The details of these aspects of the story lie in the correspondence between scientists, the notes made in the margins of lab notebooks and internal memos.

email between coulson and waterston

Printout of an email to Alan Coulson and John Sulston from Bob Waterston of Washington University, relating to the mapping and sequencing of C. elegans, 1988. Wellcome Library ref. no. PPCOU/B/4/1/26.

The Human Genome Archive Project

The Library’s Human Genome Archive Project (HGAP) is about preserving the next stage in the history of genetics. It looks ahead to the archiving and historical research challenges of the future. In phase one Project Archivist Jenny Shaw carried out a survey of individuals and organisations involved in the HGP to identify key material that should be preserved. Part of the aim of this initial phase was also to alert the scientists to the historical value of much of their unpublished material. This survey is now complete.

In phase two we have begun cataloguing collections that were discovered in the survey and deposited with us. The first of these was the relatively small Carol Churcher archive, and cataloguing the Sulston archive is the most recent stage of the project. John Sulston worked for Brenner and went on to head up the Sanger Institute in the 1990s, where one third of the human genome was sequenced. Sulston’s computer software played a key part in mapping the C.elegans genome and influenced the further development of genomics software and databases.

A particular challenge for the HGAP, which covers the period 1977-2004, is that much of the newer material is in a variety of digital formats that are both more ephemeral and more difficult to locate. Social media, texts and email have replaced written correspondence as the means of sharing experiences and opinions. Persuading scientists of the value of such material is no mean task. Even John Sulston, who deposited his papers at the Wellcome Library admitted “scientists can be quite conflicted about historical research, because it’s important to forget things and move on”.

Over the coming week we’ll have blog posts about cataloguing the Sulston archive and Coulson’s digitised papers. We’ll also have a visual survey of genomic science and technology, which gives a sense of the scale of the HGP and its potential for human health.

For some interesting background, here’s a short podcast from Nature featuring Jenny Shaw and science writer and author Georgina Ferry discussing the challenges of the Human Genome Archive Project and the historical significance of scientists’ archives:

Author: Lalita Kaplish is Assistant Web Editor at the Wellcome Library.

Lalita Kaplish

Lalita Kaplish is Web Editor at the Wellcome Library. You can also find her on LinkedIn and Twitter @LalitaKaplish.

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