Association of Art & Science Rome, ITALY

HUMAN GENOME PROJECT

 

A.Virmani July 2000

What is this project?

The HUMAN GENOME PROJECT has been in the press a lot recently. This project is designed as an International effort to decipher the genetic code (Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA) base pair sequence) that forms the blueprint for the very existence of life. 

What are the benefits of this multi-billion dollar investment?

The potential advantages include:

  1. The identification of genes (specific sequences of the DNA blueprint) that might be faulty and manufacture for example wrong proteins etc which lead to disease. Through genetic screening and gene splicing, we may be able to cure previously incurable genetic conditions such as Huntingdon's chorea, Tay-Sachs disease, cystic fibrosis, maybe even Down's syndrome.

  2. The identification of the process behind cell immortality i.e. formation of tumour (cancerous) cell that keeps dividing and theoretically is immortal.

  3. The identification of the process of cell aging (limited mortality) and therefore potentially improve the life-span

But these advantages are still a long way ahead and what about the disadvantages:

  1. The deciphering of the blueprint could open up the possibility of racial discrimination and the not so past debate on Eugenics and the master race so popular during the colonial expansions and recent Nazi and Fascist regimes. 

  2. The possibility of creating new life and dangers associated with manipulating and causing misbalance in the ecosystem are possible.

There are a number of other possible long term dangers  (as in nuclear power) which may outweigh the short term advantages. However, there is very little actual debate on the possibility of manipulating human genes although the debate on genetically modified foods (GM or Frankenstein foods) is hotting up. The reasons for this could be that the business behind this Project is enormous and there is also the clamour to patent the genes for profit. There is also the view by the Scientific community that they know best and are doing the right thing for the poor ignorant man in the street.

New Blueprints for Life

The studies will eventually give enough information to enable scientists to create a new blueprint for life. The studies being carried out at the moment follow two different types of strategies 1. The top-down and 2. The bottom-up approach.

In the top-down approach the aim is to determine how many and which of the many genes are needed for the existence of the organism For example, 517 genes are thought to be necessary for the  Mycoplasma genitalium (the smallest gene complement of any independently replicating organism). 

In the bottom up approach, the data gathered from the first phase, is used to synthesize a live organism from the ground up. Thus the scientist could combine genes in the blueprint to create a living mycoplasma but could subtly change the sequence to make it more resistant to toxins etc. This approach can also be used in the future to modify existing species or try to recreate a extinct species like dinosaurs. Of course, modifying the gene structure of an organism does not guarantee either what a organism will look like or behave since a great part of the developmental process is linked to the environmental factors. Thus adding genes for extra brain tissue to the monkey blueprint does not guarantee a more smart monkey.

Everybody should join the debate to decide the future of this technology. It is even more powerful that the Nuclear technology since it will change the very essence of life itself. 

Please Put Your Comments at the Discussion Forum

 

REFERENCES

http://news.bmn.com/hmsbeagle/78/notes/profile TIGR's Minimal Genome Project How Many Genes Are Necessary to Sustain Life?  

http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/visitors/tour2/foods2.html Future Foods- An exhibition looking at genetically modified food

 http://www.greenpeace.org/~geneng/    Greenpeace site on GM food

 http://www.newscientist.com/news/news_224433.html A "JUMPING GENE" being used to genetically engineer organisms has crossed the species barrier at least seven times in evolutionary history, in one instance between flies and humans, according to a study commissioned by the British government.

 http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/sci/tech/newsid_800000/800796.stm GM mosquitoes to fight malaria

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