A Health Spotlight on the Human Genome
Celera Genomics announces it reached the first step in mapping the human genome (4/6/00)
Should companies be able to use their findings on the human genome for profit? (3/16/00)
A discussion with Matt Ridley, author of Genome: The Autobiography Of A Species In 23 Chapters. (2/29/00)
Progress in deciphering the human genome (12/2/99)
Browse the NewsHour's coverage on Health
Center for Biotechnology Information -- Human Genome Sequencing
The Human Genome Project has opened up new opportunities for mankind. What will the future hold?
Perhaps someday people will never need glasses because genes from eagles' eyes have been combined with their parents' DNA.
Wings! We could all have wings! Beautiful feathered wings that would be utterly useless because of our body weights, but still, it'd be awesome!
There could be immunity to disease or viruses, such as Anthrax, Aids, or influenza. But at the same time, there is the possibility for abuse. As in any realm of science, progress brings not only the ability to do good, but also the ability to do ill.
A better human?
With the information scientists are gathering from their mapping of the genome, we can make the same substances our bodies make. A case in point is insulin, which is grown by combining the piece of genome which codes for human insulin with a chunk of bacteria. The bacteria doesn't recognize that anything has changed, it merely starts pumping out insulin, which scientists can then use to save the lives of millions who suffer from diabetes.
Clearly, there are many benefits to be derived from such technology, from medicines to the enhancement of our natural abilities.
But what happens when obsessive parents try to genetically engineer their kid to be the ultimate basketball player?
Is this fair to the child? What if the child doesn't want to be eight feet tall? What if the child's true calling in life is to be a jockey, only they can't, because their parents messed with their genes?
And how would this overly tall child be accepted among his peers? As anyone who's ever been made fun of well knows, being different from the other students means your school life is straight from heck.
Before we can answer these questions, we must ask ourselves who would actually use this technology? Certainly it's not going to be the average Joe and Josephine who'll be able to afford something as expensive as a designer baby. It will probably be the rich, the powerful, the well-connected, and a gaggle of scientists.
But more than that, mapping the genome could place stress on not only the social structure but the foundations of democracy itself. Our country was founded on a premise "all men are created equal." But what happens when all men are not created equal? Specifically, when the rich and powerful are created superior to the average and the poor?
The genes made me do it
Another question has to do with the use of genetic information. Let's say that someone has a gene that makes them susceptible to cancer if they're exposed to chlorine. Can their insurance company refuse to cover them if they go swimming? Can their company, since they are providing them insurance, decree that they may not go swimming?
If a student is found to have a violence gene, can the schools refuse to enroll them even if the student has never acted out? Could someone be denied a job because they're considered a genetic "threat"? Could a determination that someone has the gene for "violence" (or even "generosity") be accepted as character evidence in a court of law?
Will a person who's been told all their life they have "bad" genes, that make you selfish and violence, eventually become selfish and violent?
We're still unclear about how much of our personalities are determined by genes, and how much by environment? Aside from the whole nature vs. nurture debate, there is also the question of free will vs. determinism, a philosophical concept much like fate and destiny.
People who believe their actions are dictated entirely by their genes might take even less responsibility for their actions. A man or woman who becomes angry while in heavy traffic and ends up shooting a rubber-necker for driving too slowly may argue it isn't their fault because they have genes that make them snap very easily, and they can't be held responsible for their actions.
Genetic screening can, of course, be useful. Parents who carry recessive genes for deadly biological diseases such as sickle cell anemia or Tay-Sach's can find out their children will be affected. With some sort of gene replacement therapy, the defective genes that would normally cause the child to die early could be replaced with normal, healthy ones so that the parents could have a healthy child.
The government and military
could also use the new information for either good or bad. They could
develop new and better ways to resist biological warfare attacks. On
the other hand, however, they could develop new and "better"
biological weapons, specially tailored to attack certain parts of the
human system. Perhaps they could develop a weapon that would render
enemy soldiers blind and deaf. Will the good here outweigh the bad?
The map of uncertainty
The study of genetics, much like other scientific endeavors, has both good points and bad. On one hand, great strides are being made in understanding how the human body functions. We could find out where we came from and the migration patterns of ancient man.
Children that otherwise might have been born with rare and deadly diseases may be born healthy and happy.
But at the same time, ethical and philosophical questions must and will be addressed. A psychologically dangerous attempt at "normalization" could result as people begin to view their differences as unwanted diseases or defects that must be removed from the genetic structure of their children.
In the end, we can only look to the future with wide eyes, hopefully ready to accept the good and to fight against the evil.
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