Biology and Beyond: Interdisciplinary scholars are decoding complex social impacts on genes, exploring new models of human development

June 19, 2015. When the Human Genome Project got underway in 1990, experts believed that people carried an estimated 100,000 or more genes. Since then, the overall count has been revised downward to fewer than 25,000 genes, or about 7,000 fewer than a fleshy tomato. Does this mean that a human being is less complex than a salad ingredient?

No, says IPR anthropologist Thomas McDade, who directs Cells to Society (C2S): The Center for Social Disparities and Health at the Institute for Policy Research. Still, the comparison indicates the subtle complexity of gene-environment interplay.

In McDade’s view, one of the most significant achievements of human genome sequencing, completed in 2003, was pinning down the number of human genes. Gene mapping, however, only points to an organism’s inherited information; it cannot shed light on how genes “enter into conversation” with their environment to shape gene expression. In other words, genes are part of the conversation but don’t dictate the entire discussion with respect to human outcomes.

“We spent more than $3 billion to unlock the human genome and discover its secrets,” says McDade, “yet we still haven’t seen the initially promised breakthroughs in cures for diseases.” Read more