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The human genome gets more and more complicated

IT WAS, James Watson claimed, something even a monkey could do. Sequencing the human genome, that is. In truth, Dr Watson, co-discoverer of the double-helical structure of DNA back in the 1950s, had a point. Though a technical tour-de-force, the Human Genome Project was actually the sum of millions of small, repetitive actions by cleverly programmed robots. When it was complete, so the story went, humanity’s genes—the DNA code for all human proteins—would be laid bare and all would be light.

It didn’t quite work out like that. Knowing the protein-coding genes has been useful. It has provided a lexicon of proteins, including many previously unknown ones. What is needed, though, is a proper dictionary—an explanation of what the proteins mean as well as what they are. For that, you need to know how the genes’ activities are regulated in the 220 or so different types of cell a human body is made from. And that is the purpose of the American government’s Roadmap Epigenome Programme, results from which are published this week in Nature by Ryan Lister and Mattia Pelizzola of the Salk Institute in California, and their colleagues. …

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