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Published: Saturday, 9/22/2012

Triumph of science

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form and moving, how express and admirable! In action, how like an angel!

In writing Hamlet, William Shakespeare understood the wonder of men and women, but could never guess at how much a miracle of creation humans are. That wider understanding has grown only through the modern scientific application of noble reason and infinite faculty.

This month, human self-knowledge reached a new plateau. After working for five years, 442 scientists from around the world succeeded for the first time in describing the architecture of the human genome and how it works.

The project provided insight on how disease occurs. It significantly altered old ideas of so-called junk DNA, revealing that at least 80 percent of the human genetic code, or genome, is active.

The breakthroughs not only prompt the rewriting of textbooks, but also are likely to pay big dividends for promoting public health in the years ahead. The project, called ENCODE, for Encyclopedia of DNA Elements, was funded by the National Institutes of Health. The findings reveal highly complex networks that tell our genes what to do and when, with millions of on-off switches.

Given that complexity, this new plateau of understanding -- "breathtaking," according to Eric Green, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, which organized the project -- appears to be still in the foothills of what one day will be learned. What a piece of work is man.

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