Tales of drafty genomes: part 1 — The Human Genome

One of my recent blog posts discussed this new paper in PLOS Computational Biology:

There has also been a lot of chatter on twitter about this paper. Here is just part of an exchange that I was involved in yesterday:

The issue of what is or isn’t a draft genome — and whether this even matters — is something on which I have much to say. It’s worth mentioning that there are a lot of draft genomes out there: Google Scholar reports that there are 1,440 artices that mention the phrase ‘draft genome’ in their title [1]. In the first part of this series, I’ll take a look at one of the most well-studied genome sequences in existence…the human genome.

The most famous example of a draft genome is probably the ‘working draft’ of the human genome that was announced — with much fanfare — in July 2000 [2]. At this time, the assembly was reported as consisting of “overlapping fragments covering 97 percent of the human genome”. By the time the working draft was formally published in Nature in January 2001, the assembly was reported as covering “about 94% of the human genome” (incidentally, this Nature paper seems to be first published use of the N50 statistic).

On April 14, 2003 the National Human Genome Research Institute and the Department of Energy announced the “successful completion of the Human Genome Project” (emphasis mine). This was followed by the October 2004 Nature paper that discussed the ongoing work in finishing the euchromatic portion of the human genome[3]. Now, the genome was being referred to as ‘near-complete’ and if you focus on the euchromatic portion, it was indeed about 99% complete. However, if you look at the genome as a whole, it was still only 93.5% complete [4].

Of course the work to correctly sequence, assemble, and annotate the human genome has never stopped, and probably will never stop for some time yet. As of October 14, 2014, the latest version of the human genome reference sequence is GRCh38.p1[5] lovingly maintained by the Genome Reference Consortium (GRC). The size of the human genome has increased just a little bit compared to the earlier publications from a decade ago[6], but there is still several things that we don’t know about this ‘complete/near-complete/finished’ genome. Unknown bases still account for 5% of the total size (that’s over 150 million bp). Furtheremore, there are almost 11 million bp of unplaced scaffolds that are still waiting to be given a (chromosomal) home. Finally, there remains 875 gaps in the genome (526 are spanned gaps and 349 unspanned gaps[7]).

If we leave aside other problematic issues in deciding what a reference genome actually is, and what it should contain[8], we can ask the simple question is the current human genome a draft genome? Clearly I think everyone would say ‘no’. But what if I asked is the current human genome complete? I’m curious how many people would say ‘yes’ and how many people would ask me to first define ‘complete’.

Here are some results for how many hits you get when Googling for the following phrases:

Scientists and journalists don’t help the situation by maybe being too eager to overhype the state of completion of the human genome[9]. In conclusion, the human genome is no longer a draft genome, but it is still just a little bit drafty. More on this topic of drafty genomes in part 2!

  1. There are 1,570 if you don’t require the words ‘draft’ and ‘genome’ to be together in the article title.  ↩

  2. The use of the ‘working draft’ as a phrase had been in use since at least late 1998.  ↩

  3. There is also the entire batch of chromosome-specific papers published between 2001 and 2006.  ↩

  4. This percentage is based on the following line in the paper: “The euchromatic genome is thus ~2.88 Gb and the overall human genome is ~3.08 Gb”  ↩

  5. This is the 1st patched updated to version 38 of the reference sequence  ↩

  6. There are 3,212,670,709 bp in the latest assembly  ↩

  7. The GRC defines the two categories as follows:

    Spanned gaps are found within scaffolds and there is some evidence suggesting linkage between the two sequences flanking the gap. Unspanned gaps are found between scaffolds and there is no evidence of linkage.  ↩

  8. Remember, human genomes are diploid and not only vary between individuals but can also vary from cell-to-cell. The idea of a ‘reference’ sequence is therefore a nebulous one. How much known variation do you try to represent (the GRC represents many alternative loci)? How should a reference sequence represent things like ribosomal DNA arrays or other tandem repeats?  ↩

  9. Jonathan Eisen wrote a great blog post on this: Some history of hype regarding the human genome project and genomics  ↩