Globe Syndicate

Another Way

by Melodie Davis

for release April 7, 2000

Why Should We Care About The Human Genome Project?

Ordinarily I write in the field of family, values, and ethics. For me to venture into the land of DNA, genomes, or anything scientific is pretty risky. But when someone says, well, you need to know about things like genetic engineering because in the future, you will be voting on persons or policies who decide on these critical issues, I try to pay attention.

Last year I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Gina MacDonald, an assistant professor of chemistry at James Madison University (Harrisonburg, Va.) talk to the local Kiwanis club about modifying DNA. Her field of specialty, according to JMU's web page, is gaining further insight into the regulation and mechanism of a protein involved in DNA repair and recombination. I just love it when perfectly normal looking people spend their lives studying things I have barely heard of. MacDonald noted that because of the scientific age we live in, scientific literacy is more important now than ever. She said supporting basic research is very important because you never know what combination of scientific discoveries will be used to cure cancer or develop new technologies.

Macdonald was smart enough to address something she knew we would be soon hearing a lot about, the Human Genome Project. For ten years now, international teams of scientists have been meticulously mapping the human genetic code-all 3 billion chemical "letters" that go into it. This spring scientists plan to unveil (it may happen before this appears in print) a working draft, and in 2003, they hope to have the entire sequence mapped. Genome combines the words gene and chromosome and refers to all the DNA in an organism or cell. And I was fascinated to be reminded that DNA stands for something called deoxyribonucleic acid, which is the long molecule that carries the genetic instructions (heredity).

Why should we care? A.J. Hostetler, a science writer with the Richmond Times Dispatch, in an article, "Mapping the Human Genomes," (March 9, 2000) says that decoding the order of the Genome is fundamental to understanding the design and construction of the human body and its ailments. The knowledge can lead to numerous medical advances--but also endless ethical quandaries. It will be basic to a lot of other work and "will stand for all time," said Dr. Francis Collins, head of the U.S. National Human Genome Research Institute in Bethesda, Md. Some 4,000 illnesses, ranging from cystic fibrosis to breast cancer, are considered in some way genetic, (either caused by inheriting a mutation or by a mutation that comes later in life brought on by carcinogens). So the research can mean hope for a score of illnesses.

I liked the way MacDonald was able to put things in Science for Dummies language. In genetic engineering, small parts of DNA are moved for beneficial purposes, such as to cure diseases or create new plants. Right now, scientists and doctors use this kind of research and information in gene therapy, where they put needed DNA into a patient's cells so that their own cells can produce the necessary proteins. They discovered how to insert DNA into cells by watching the way that viruses get in.

While some of the uses of genetic engineering are clearly beneficial, some of the ethical questions that have to be asked and answered: do we want genetically engineered plants and food? Do we want cloning?

Interestingly, about 4 percent of the Human Genome Project's funding goes to ethical research, according to Hostetler. At least now science is aware of the potential ethical fallout, as opposed to scientists who worked on the "Manhattan Project" that led to the atomic bomb. That work was kept secret and no one worked on the implications of their discoveries. Yet, bioethicist Art Caplan of the University of Pennsylvania says that today, we are not ready either to cope with the implications from genome coding.

I'm reminded of the fact that fire can either be a raging killer or can bring lifesaving warmth. The same with water: it is both essential for life, and a torrential drowner. I believe the same way with this research: there is much good that can be done with this information, but it can also be used harmfully. For instance, Hostetler notes, will persons not be able to get health insurance if they have genes that predispose them to certain diseases? Will the rich be able to find out their genetic code, while the poor will not be able to? Dr. Caplan feels legislation is needed now to prevent new discoveries from being used in negative ways. For more information, check

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Melodie Davis is the author of seven books and has written her column since 1987. She taught feature writing and has won awards from a number of organizations including the National Federation of Press Women, Virginia Press Women and the American Advertising Association. She and her husband have three growing daughters.

NOTES TO EDITORS: text = 780 words; end material = 105 words

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