Genome could be start of a predetermined future

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 1, 2001

&uot;Humanity has been given a great gift.

Tuesday, May 01, 2001

&uot;Humanity has been given a great gift. With the completion of the human genome sequence, we have received a powerful tool for unlocking the secrets of our genetic heritage and for finding our place among the other participants in the adventure of life.&uot;

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These grand words appear in the editorial which opened the special issue about the human genome published by the journal Science a couple of months ago. The issue came with all kinds of goodies. A CD-ROM (which I still haven’t looked at yet), a couple of glossy posters about the history and science of the Genome project, and a third poster about the size of a beach towel with a &uot;picture&uot; of the entire human genome (or most of it, anyway) in all of it’s incomprehensible glory.

I’m not sure if the unraveling of the human genetic code is a gift or a problem. What does it tell us about ourselves that matters, in the end? Seeing the DNA and how it works can identify the causes of many diseases; it can help explain a lot of very important things. But can it tell us why a father loves his children? Will studying the DNA that is inside us tell us why a human would use her or his entire life to solve the puzzle of our genetic code?

Reading the articles and reports in the journals and in the newspapers, I see a story that is taking place at many different levels. You have the actual project, the actual publication of the genetic code, but you also have the story of how technology made it possible. You have the story of the motivations of the individuals involved: compassion for the sick, curiosity, and even (gasp) greed. But the story about the next step is sketchy.

Now that scientists have completed the task of unraveling the genetic code for humanity, what happens next? Research is beginning to identify the genetic causes of various diseases, so that new treatments can help save lives. Doctors won’t be nearly so helpless as they treat families that live with the burden of inherited diseases like hemophilia. But there is also this to think about: Scientists already have a complete map of the genome for mice and are studying the effects of changes (or mutations) in mouse DNA. Scientists &uot;harvest&uot; eggs from female mice, adjust the DNA they contain and then replace the eggs so that they can study the resulting offspring and any mutations which result. Sounds kind of gruesome and more like the stories about Dr. Frankenstein than real science. Will they be doing the same sorts of experiments on human eggs and embryos?

Something else bothers me: how this new knowledge will be applied to those of us already living and those of us yet to be born. The science fiction film Gattaca portrays a future world in which our &uot;destiny&uot; is pre-determined by our genes. Being born with the wrong kind of DNA, like genes which indicate future heart problems or cancer, means your options are limited, both in terms of career and in relationships. In the world of the movie, discrimination on the basis of DNA analysis is widespread, and the hero of the story has to pretend to be somebody else in order to fulfill his dream of working in space.

Now that we have the &uot;blueprint&uot; or &uot;code&uot; for humanity, will it be used to screen us, both before and after birth? Will certain kinds of sequences in the genetic code within our cells make us more or less desirable as employees, as leaders, as parents? If the gene sequence responsible for homosexuality is discovered, will religious conservatives be hounding scientists and politicians to require DNA resequencing or abortions for the unacceptable &uot;gay&uot; fetuses that are found? Will poor people have equal access to DNA-based therapies, or will those be reserved for those who can afford it?

There was such a rush to be the first to finish mapping the human genome that I don’t think there was much thought given to all of the consequences of the enterprise. Certainly people can benefit from this knowledge, and as we become better able to manipulate DNA, to make changes to it, many diseases will become less of a threat to individuals and their descendants. But without strict controls on how this information can be used, I see the possibility of big trouble ahead.

David Behling is a rural Albert Lea resident. His column appears Tuesdays.