Robert Sinsheimer: sequencing the human genome

Robert Sinsheimer
Robert Sinsheimer

In May 1985, molecular biologist and UC Santa Cruz Chancellor Robert Sinsheimer shared with a group of eminent biologists a radical proposal to launch a massive project to determine the complete DNA sequence of the human genome.

The technological challenges were daunting, but Sinsheimer recognized that knowledge of the human genome would have profound implications for biomedical science. Although he was unable to secure funding for it at the time, the meeting planted the idea of sequencing the human genome within a core group of scientists. Five years later, the Human Genome Project was officially launched with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health.

In 1999, project leaders asked David Haussler, then a professor of computer science and now director of the UCSC Genomics Institute, to help with the analysis of the human genome. Before that work could start, however, the genome sequence had to be assembled from fragmented data generated by the project's sequencing laboratories. This unexpectedly challenging task was accomplished by Jim Kent, then a UCSC graduate student, who wrote the computer program used to assemble the first working draft of the human genome sequence. Kent finished the assembly in June 2000, just days before this landmark achievement was announced at a White House press conference.

In 2001, Sinsheimer received the UC Presidential Medal at a ceremony during the UC Santa Cruz Human Genome Symposium, which brought together many of the original participants in the 1985 Santa Cruz Workshop, along with NIH's Francis Collins and other leaders of the Human Genome Project.

This article is part of our Original Thinkers series, recognizing some of the original thinkers whose paradigm-shifting contributions have made lasting impacts and changed the world.