[Quote] Their remarkable progress led to a vast, ambitious vision: to spell out the full complement of genes in the human genome. As Walter Gilbert of Harvard University put it, “The search for this ‘Holy Grail’ of who we are has now reached its culminating phase. The ultimate goal is the acquisition of all the details of our genome.”
This astonishing achievement has indeed transformed our view of ourselves, but not in the way that was anticipated. The first surprise was that there were so few genes. Rather than the predicted 100,000 or more, the finally tally of about 25,000 was very puzzling, and all the more so when compared with the genomes of other animals much simpler than ourselves. There are about 17,000 genes in a fruit fly and about 26,000 in a sea urchin. Many species of plants have far more genes than we do–rice has about 38,000, for example.
In 2001, the director of the chimpanzee genome project, Svante Paabo, anticipated that when the sequencing of the ape’s genome was completed, it would be possible to identify “the profoundly interesting genetic prerequisites that make us different from other animals.” When the complete chimpanzee sequence was published four years later, his interpretation was more muted: “We cannot see in this why we are so different from chimpanzees.”
In the wake of the Human Genome Project, the mood has changed dramatically. The old assumption that life would be understood if molecular biologists knew the “program” of an organism is giving way to a realization that there is a huge gap between gene sequences and the way living organisms grow and behave.
R. Sheldrake, Morphic Resonance (Park Street Press 2009), xvi-xviii.