Standard Article

Genetics as Explanation: Limits to the Human Genome Project

  1. Irun R Cohen1,
  2. Henri Atlan2,
  3. Sol Efroni3

Published Online: 15 DEC 2009

DOI: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0005881.pub2



How to Cite

Cohen, I. R., Atlan, H. and Efroni, S. 2009. Genetics as Explanation: Limits to the Human Genome Project. eLS. .

Author Information

  1. 1

    The Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot, Israel

  2. 2

    Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris, France

  3. 3

    Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan, Israel

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 15 DEC 2009

This is not the most recent version of the article. View current version (3 NOV 2016)


Living organisms are composed of cells and all living cells contain a genome, the organism's stock of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). The role of the genome has been likened to a program that encodes the organism's development and its subsequent response to the environment. This computer metaphor teaches that the organism – the hardware – is controlled by the software – the genome. Thus, the organism and its fate can be explained by genetics, the plans written into the sequence of genomic DNA; the Genome Project was devised to decipher this program. However, it is now clear that the genome does not directly program the organism; the computer program metaphor has misled us. The genome is only one class of vital information that serves the organism. Metaphorically, the genome can be likened to a vocabulary of words that can be deployed to make meaningful sentences, or to a toolbox for accomplishing specific tasks.

Key concepts:

  • The genome does not function as a master plan or computer program for controlling the organism; the genome is the organism's servant, not its master.

  • The genome is a reservoir of DNA sequence information and a vehicle for transmitting this information; the meaning of DNA emerges from the cellular processing of this raw information into proteins and other functional molecules.

  • DNA is only one class of vital information that serves the organism; the organism epigenetically uses, manipulates, regulates and, in the case of the immune system, creates genes.

  • The effects of a gene vary with the organism's environment; the interactions between genes and environment are not linear and, in most cases, not additive. Therefore, one cannot compute with certainty the relative contributions of genes and environment to an organism's observed features – its phenotype.

  • Metaphorically, we can think of the genome as akin to a list of words, a vocabulary, which can be used to build and express a meaningful language; like a vocabulary, a genome by itself has no functional meaning.

  • The genome is thus akin to a toolbox of DNA sequences that provide molecular tools as requested by the internal state of the organism and the state of the environment.

  • One's genes cannot explain one's being: an organism is the expression of a dynamic and ongoing interaction between the state of its environment and its internal state, which includes its past history and its toolbox of DNA sequences.


  • genetics;
  • computer program;
  • evolution;
  • information;
  • complexity