1999 : WHAT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT INVENTION IN THE PAST TWO THOUSAND YEA

[ print ]

Professor Emeritus of Chemistry and Senior Research Scientist, New York University; Author, Planetary Dreams
Professor of Chemistry at New York University

Most of the inventions mentioned thus far have affected, as one contributor put it, the boundary between we humans and the natural world that surrounds us. But the operations of the human body, and the brain which it contains, support all of the experiences that make up our existence. Discoveries that will permit us ultimately to take charge of these functions, and shape them to our desires, surely deserve nomination as the most important of the last two millennia. These insights have flowed broadly from the entire area of science that is now called molecular biology, but if I had to single out the most important invention that made the entire process possible, then I would select genetic sequencing for the honor. The new techniques developed by Fred Sanger in Cambridge and Walter Gilbert at Harvard in the mid-1970's allowed us to read out rapidly the specific information stored in our genes and those of all other living creatures on Earth.

The new methods stimulated a burst of scientific energy that will culminate in the next decade, when the sequence of about 3 billion characters of DNA that encodes a typical human being will be fully deciphered by the Human Genome Project. In subsequent explorations, we shall how individuals differ in their heredity, and how this information is expressed to produce the human body.

Thus far the effects of sequencing have largely impacted us through such media worthy events as the identification of the stain on Monica Lewinsky's dress, validation of the identity of the Romanov bones, refutation of the claim of Anna Anderson to be Anastasia and confirmation of Thomas Jefferson's affair with Sally Hemings. Much, much more is yet to come.

The completion of the Human Genome Project will provide us with an understanding, at the molecular level, of human hereditary disease (much has already been learned about Huntington's disease, cystic fibrosis and others). Further, by the application of other tools from modern molecular biology, we shall be able to do something about these afflictions in the near future.They will be treated and, if society permits it, corrected at the genetic level. Beyond that, we shall come to understand, and perhaps control, many unfortunate aspects of the human condition that have until now been taken for granted, from baldness to aging. Ultimately, we may elect to rewrite our genetic text, changing ourselves and the way in which we experience the universe.

Much more has been written on these subjects, but I hope that the above brief treatment should be enough to qualify genetic sequencing for the short list of finalists in this contest. I will also suggest that any poll taken now would not do justice to this invention, as most of its consequences still lie ahead of us. Perhaps we should schedule another poll for the year 3998, to determine the best invention in the period AD 1-2000?