Image: To match Special Report SCIENCE/GENOME
Larry Downing  /  Reuters
Technician Javier Quinones demonstrates the beginning of the sequencing procedure in the sequencing laboratory at the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland. Some experts say the world is on the cusp of a golden age of genomics, when a look at the DNA code will reveal your risk of cancer, diabetes or heart disease, and predict which drugs will work for you.
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updated 5/16/2011 7:23:50 AM ET 2011-05-16T11:23:50

The Human Genome Project — a $3.8-billion international human genome mapping project that ran from 1988 to 2003 — wasn't just a money-sucking vanity initiative that only reaped profits for personal genetic testing companies like 23andMe. The project has, in fact, driven $796 billion in economic impact and generated $244 billion in total personal income, according to a new report from Battelle. Sometimes, pricey long-term science projects are well worth it.

According to the report, the nascent genetic research industry generated $67 billion in U.S. economic output and created 310,000 jobs in 2010 alone. "We were surprised by just how large the economic impact had been," says Greg Lucier, CEO of Life Technologies (the foundation that sponsored Battelle's research). "What was even more interesting for me is that we're just getting going. The ability now to read genes quickly and economically is opening up entirely new vistas of opportunity."

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Lucier points out that it is already commonplace for pharmaceutical companies to do DNA sequencing for developing new drugs, and companies like Monsanto are using gene-mapping technologies in crop development (which may or may not be a good thing). The HGP even helped authorities to confirm Osama bin Laden's death with DNA testing.

And that nearly $800 billion is just the start of the money that will start rolling in as technology improves. "In my view, DNA sequencing will become as ubiquitous as the stethoscope in medicine," says Lucier. This could happen sooner rather than later; the same sequencing services that cost billions of dollars 10 years ago cost only thousands of dollars today.

"Companies like ours have been investing hundreds of millions of dollars in development [of DNA sequencing technology. Our knowledge of chemistry and computing have been combined to where you can do things at the molecular level quickly," Lucier explains.

This may mean radically improved drugs targeted at patients with specific genes — or a "Gattaca"-like future where everyone is judged on their genetic makeup. At the end of the day, we'll bet the $3.8 billion turns out to be a fantastic investment.

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