FOR YEARS, THE HYPE surrounding genetic engineering and gene therapy knew no bounds. With the Human Genome Project-publicized at the height of the dot com mania-things went from bad to worse. The genome was "decoded," then fully decoded. Then a final draft was decoded one more time, fully and finally. That was last spring. And still they didn't know how many genes we have. Twenty thousand? Forty thousand? About as many as roundworms, some guessed.
Something was wrong. But there had been a coronation, and now there was no going back. The genome was the marvel of our age. Knowing the nucleotide sequence of the DNA would allow us to decipher the mysteries of life. Now we could repair the misprints and defects that had brought us disease and misery. Sooner or later, death itself would be overcome.
There was no adversary press. The liberals who had brought us social engineering were not going to dispute the claims of human engineering. The breakthroughs, endlessly touted, constituted the new progressive vision. For the first time in years, it became possible for liberals to believe in progress again. So the journalists formed themselves into a cheering squad. The libertarians were especially enthusiastic.
In part, the conservatives were critical. But they confined their criticisms to the ethical realm. Ought we to be doing these things? The science itself was accepted as a given. Only a few old-fashioned leftists, disapproving a priori of the claim that we are hard-wired products of our genes, provided any balance. A critical review in Harper's by Barry Commoner, examining "the spurious foundation of genetic engineering," was exceptional in challenging the science itself.
The moral qualms of the conservatives only inflamed the utopian passion of the bio-engineers. Were it not for benighted politics, progress would be assured. We had been on the brink of attaining it, and then came George W. Bush! Michael Kinsley howled for increased political support for stem cell research. The scientists had worked their wonders, but the pols were letting us down.
Belatedly, second thoughts about the science are now beginning to surface. There are signs of impatience, verging on disillusionment. The human genome in particular is not delivering as expected.
Human DNA is a great string of four nucleotides, three billion letters long. Some of these sequences-the "coding regions"-are called genes. They control the construction of proteins in the body. But far greater stretches of the same DNA are "non coding regions," and for many years they were called "junk." That was the word scientists used. Junk DNA had no function and could be ignored. These enormous sequences, amounting to 98.5 percent of the whole genome, were dismissed as the accumulated rubbish and detritus left behind by the constant trial and error of evolution.
Now the white-coats are beginning to suspect that they made a mistake. Wayt Gibbs reported in November's Scientific American that "journals and conferences have been buzzing with new evidence," contradicting the old idea that genes "are the sole mainspring of heredity and the complete blueprint of life." Included in this "unseen genome" is the 98.5 percent that had been "written off as irrelevant." Some scientists now suspect that the key to understanding what makes one person different from the next is, precisely, "hidden within our 'junk' DNA."
Sooner or later this will make its way to the front pages, and we will realize that the genome project was based on a misconception. Some scientists are already arguing that the gene must be rethought and may have to be abandoned in favor of something more fluid.
"The concept of a gene as an easily recognized single segment of DNA has evaporated," says Art Robinson, who taught biochemistry at U.C. San Diego before launching his own Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine. "The real question is: What is the other 98. …