The Human Genome Project was an international scientific effort, coordinated by the U.S. National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Energy in 1990, to decode the string of tens of thousands of genes, which are made up of about three billion pieces of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and help find out what they do. In 2003, project scientists announced that they had successfully mapped the entire human genome, two years earlier than expected.
II. Pros and Cons
Scientists saw the discovery as starting a golden age of biomedical science that might be able to cure human diseases, extend human life, and allow humans to reach much more of their full genetic potential than ever before. It was reasoned that simply understanding why the human organism works the way it does might help people to understand who and what they are at a fundamental level.
Critics, however, worried about a future in which “designer” people would be purposely created with genetic alterations that would never have naturally occurred. They saw grave dangers in genetic knowledge being used to deny people with potential problems everything from medical insurance to jobs, thus affecting even their ability to survive. They were concerned that new abilities to understand and alter human genes would allow the wealthy and influential to give themselves and their children advantages over poorer and less influential people who could not afford to pay for the manipulation of their genetic makeup.
Questions include the following: Could genetic engineering generate a new basis for a class system, with “supergeniacs” attaining an enduring supremacy over weaker and poorer people? Could wealthy and influential people customize their children’s genetic structure to give them advantages over less privileged people? Would these new abilities, if not made equally available, exacerbate the social inequalities that already exist?
Pros and Cons
One possible gain from decoding the human genome is that knowledge about which genes or combinations of genes can cause certain physical diseases, deformations, or other problems; this would allow scientists to produce tests revealing whether individuals have the potential to develop an illness or disability. Many genetic predispositions merely suggest that an individual might develop a condition: the finding is not definite or conclusive. Knowledge that an individual has a particular gene or set of genes could offer a heads-up on anemia, multiple sclerosis, or diabetes; yet like diabetes, a person can carry the gene without developing the disease. Similarly, a person might be genetically predisposed to alcoholism but never become an alcoholic. The selling point for the project in part was that it would lead to the reduction of health care costs by nabbing potential conditions before they developed, much like murder was handled in the movie Minority Report.
Researchers seek to somehow remove the problem component by replacing it or “turning it off .” The purposeful manipulation of human genes to eliminate or minimize the effects of “bad” genes or DNA is called gene therapy. Early attempts at using gene therapy to improve human situations have been disappointing, but scientists remain optimistic.
Scientists in 2009 had begun mapping genetic sequences of entire families to study disease and other maladies. As of this writing (mid-2010), scientists were using the human genome to make ancestral connections not only within families but also with Neanderthals, for example. In 2009, Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News reported researchers who sequenced an entire immediate family discovered that parents pass along fewer “genetic mutations” to their children than previously thought. The children were born with two extremely rare conditions: Miller’s syndrome and primary ciliary dyskinesia. Scientists were given permission to compare variants in the children’s DNA sequences with the Human Genome Project’s research. The result confirmed an earlier study that identified four “candidate” gene mutations for causing each disorder.
Certainly some scientists will use the human genome to develop new therapies, drugs, and treatments for human diseases. But what if an insurance company required all applicants for medical or life insurance to submit to a genetic test? The test would reveal potential genetically based diseases or disorders. Would health insurers charge people more or less depending on their predispositions at the time of birth? Or would they simply decline to insure the child? Would this create a class of citizens who could not obtain insurance, not because they actually had a condition but because they might develop one in the future? Could employers, some of whom offer medical insurance coverage, demand such tests and refuse to hire people with potential problems?
Officials elected to the U.S. Congress have introduced legislation attempting to give employees rights in this matter and balance them with those of employers and insurance companies. Around the world, legislators have wrestled with the issue of how to protect rights to employment, insurance, and privacy in an age in which knowledge of someone’s genetic makeup can say much about their possible future.
The human genetic code does not yet provide the ability to create Robocop-type or Cylon-like human-machine hybrids. There is no evidence that Data, the peaceful and searching character of the television program Star Trek, will not be developed before hybrid military robots. Legislators in the United States are keeping watch on genomics and related ethical considerations. The basic list of genes and their components elucidated by the Human Genome Project is now available to enhance or detract from life as we know it today.
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- Batra, Karen, “National Academy of Sciences Says Genetic Engineering Could Save Florida’s Oranges.” Biotechnology Industry Organization (March 26, 2010).
- Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News, http://www.genengnews.com/
- Hubbard, Ruth, and Elijh Wald. Exploding the Gene Myth: How Genetic Information Is Produced and Manipulated by Scientists, Physicians, Employers, Insurance Companies, Educators, and Law Enforcers. Boston: Beacon Press, 1999.
- All About The Human Genome Project (HGP), http://www.genome.gov/10001772
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- Moore, David S., The Dependent Gene: The Fallacy of “Nature vs. Nurture.” New York: Henry Holt, 2002.
- National Academies, “Destructive Citrus Greening Disease Affecting Florida Could Be Combated with Bacteria-Resistant Trees, Early Detection, Coordinated Efforts, Says Report.” March 23, 2010a. http://www8.nationalacademies.org/onpinews/newsitem.aspx?RecordID=12880
- National Academies, “Strategic Planning for the Florida Citrus Industry: Addressing Citrus Greening Disease.” National Research Council of the National Academies Board on Agriculture and National Resources Division on Earth and Life Studies. National Academies Press: Washington, DC, 2010b, http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=12880
- Ridley, Matt. Nature via Nurture: Genes, Experience, & What Makes Us Human. New York: HarperCollins, 2003.
- Simeonidis, Simos. “Biotech Financing Overview and Trends from Last Year’s Fourth Quarter.” Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News. January 19, 2010. http://www.genengnews.com/analysis-andamp-insight/biotech-financing-overview-and-trends-from-last-year-s-fourth-b-b/73345706/
- Stober, Spencer S., and Donna Yarri, God, Science, and Designer Genes: An Exploration of Emerging Genetic Technologies. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2009.