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Rachel Carson testifying in 1962 before a congressional subcommittee appointed to look into her claims about the dangers posed by pesticides. Before she rang the alarm, DDT (right) was seen as everyone’s best friend.

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A plant with crown gall disease, caused by Agrobacterium tumefaciens. The lumpy tumor is the bacterium’s ingenious way of ensuring that the plant produces plenty of what the bacterium needs.

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A “gene gun” for shooting DNA into plant cells

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Hybrid corn companies have for years hired an army of “detasselers” to remove the male flowers, tassels, from corn plants. This prevents self-pollination, ensuring that the seeds produced are indeed hybrid—the product of the cross between two separate strains.

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The Cold War Corn Summit: Soviet leader Khrushchev with Iowa farmer Roswell Garst in 1959

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The effect of eons of artificial selection: corn and its wild ancestor, teosinte.

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Bt cotton: Cotton genetically engineered to produce insecticidal Bt toxin (right) thrives while a non-Bt crop is trashed by pest insects.

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Detail of Bruegel’s painting The Harvesters shows wheat as it was in the sixteenth century—five feet high. Artificial selection has since halved its height, making it easier to harvest; because the plant puts less energy into growing its stem, its seed heads are larger and more nutritious.

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Reports of the impact of Bt corn pollen on the caterpillars of monarch butterflies galvanized opponents of agricultural biotechnology. In 2000, this protester dressed as a monarch attracted the interest of Boston’s finest.

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Experimental plots vandalized at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, 2000

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Genesis of the genome project: Wally Gilbert and David Botstein at loggerheads at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, 1986

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Kary Mullis, inventor of PCR

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The team at the heart of France’s contribution to the genome project: Jean Weissenbach is third from left and Daniel Cohen is on the right. Next to Cohen is Jean Dausset, the visionary immunologist and Nobel laureate who launched the effort.

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International collaboration (top): British and American scientists were the first to complete the sequencing of the genome of a complex organism, the nematode C. elegans. The project’s leaders (below), Bob Waterston and John Sulston, still found time to relax.

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Mass production meets DNA sequencing: MIT’s Whitehead Institute marshaled the international response to Venter and Celera.

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Jim Kent used a hundred PCs to assemble the rough draft of the genome for the public project.

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June 26, 2000: With a rough draft in hand, Craig Venter (left) and Francis Collins (right) temporarily set rivalries aside to bask in the presidential limelight.

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Outside the White House: me with Eric Lander (Whitehead, MIT), Richard Gibbs (Baylor, Houston), Bob Waterston, and Rick Wilson (Washington University, St. Louis)

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Original 1997 advertisement in the Buffalo News seeking volunteers to contribute DNA for the Human Genome Project

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The books of life: Cas Kramer and colleagues at the University of Leicester printed the complete human genome sequence. Each set of colored volumes represents a different chromosome. This encyclopedia of information is encoded in every cell in the human body.

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First of many: taking possession of a portable hard drive containing my genome sequence from 454 founder Jonathan Rothberg in May 2007

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Mind the gap: My genome sequence was posted online except for a small section of chromosome 19 flanking the APOE gene, associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

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Cambridge University’s Shankar Balasubramanian and David Klenerman enjoy a celebratory pint at the Panton Arms, where they established the principles of the Solexa next-gen sequencing system.

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One small step: Internal email to Solexa executives marks a major milestone— sequencing the first genome of the tiny virus ΦX174

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In 2010, I joined about twenty other genome pioneers, the first fully sequenced individuals, at a conference in Boston. Among them were sequencing firm CEOs Jay Flatley (behind me) and Greg Lucier (front row, far left); and George Church (back row, with beard), together with volunteers of his Personal Genome Project, including Harvard historian Henry Louis “Skip” Gates (back row, far left). Seated on my right is the youngest pioneer, Anne West.

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One of the first prescriptions for a full genome sequence, for teenager Anne West (daughter of the former Solexa CEO John West)

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Nicholas Volker: poster child for use of genome sequencing to end a desperate diagnostic odyssey

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President George W. Bush signs the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) of 2008.

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In 1989, David Deamer sketched the basic idea for nanopore DNA sequencing.

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Shrinking the sequencer: Oxford Nanopore plans to launch the SmidgION, which will literally plug into a smartphone.

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University of São Paolo virus hunter Ingra Morales loads a sample into a portable DNA sequencer as part of the ZiBRA (Zika in Brazil Real Time Analysis) Project.

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The astonishing orders-of-magnitude drop in the cost of sequencing a human genome from 2007 (the commercial launch of next-gen sequencing) to the present day has reached the $1000 price point—and could go even lower in the years ahead. The growth in sequencing technology has outpaced even Moore’s Law (solid line), the famous doctrine of Intel co-founder Gordon Moore which predicted the approximate doubling of computer processing power every two years.

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Comparison of mouse and human DNA for the same gene. Included is an intron (a noncoding region within the gene, shown in a box) and parts of two exons (regions that code for the protein produced by the gene). The highlighted bases are where there has been no change over evolution between the two sequences. A dash implies the loss of a base in one species. The overall similarity of the mouse and human sequences suggests that natural selection has been tremendously effective in eliminating mutations. In the intron, where mutations are typically inconsequential, we see much more divergence than in the exons, where a change may impair the function of the protein.

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Onions on top: The genome of one of his onions is six times larger than the onion vendor’s.

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Barbara McClintock, discoverer of mobile genetic elements

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Fruit fly faces. On the left is a normal individual, with a pair of feathery antennae protruding from its forehead. On the right is an antennapedia mutant, in which the antennae have been replaced by fully formed legs.

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Svante Pääbo (Max Planck Institute) with the skull of one of his Neanderthal cousins

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