Who's Afraid of the Human Genome?

Article excerpt

Who's Afraid of the Human Genome?

In Edward Albee's 1962 play, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, George (a historian) describes the agenda of modern biology to alter chromosomes: ....the genetic makeup of a sperm cell changed, reordered...to order, actually...for hair and eye color, stature, potency...I imagine...hairiness, features, health...and mind. Most important...- Mind. All imbalances will be corrected, sifted out...propensity for various diseases will be gone, longevity assured. We will have a race of men...test-tube-bred...incubator-born...superb and sublime.

George's view of the future was sinister and threatening in the early '60s. But today these same sentiments seem almost quaint. Mapping and sequencing the estimated 3 billion base pairs of the human genome (the 50,000 to 100,000 genes we are composed of) is "in"; raising serious questions about the project itself is "out." There is money to be made here, and even the "ethicists" are slated to have their share.

The Wall Street Journal summarized the case for the human genome project in early 1989 when it editorialized, "The techniques of gene identification, separation, and splicing now allow us to discover the basic causes of ailments and, thus, to progress toward cures and even precursory treatments that might ward off the onset of illness ranging from cancer to heart disease and AIDS." All that is lacking "is a blueprint--a map of the human genome." Noting that some members of the European Parliament had suggested that ethical questions regarding eugenics should be answered "before it proceeds," the Journal opined that "This of course, is a formula for making no progress at all." The editorial concluded, "The Human Genome Initiative...may well invite attack from those who are fearful of or hostile to the future. It should also attract the active support of those willing to defend the future" ("Chromosome Cartography," Wall Street Journal, 16 March 1989, A16).

The National Institutes of Health have created an Office of Human Genome Research headed by James Watson, and that office has issued a request for funding proposals to study "the ethical, social, and legal issues that may arise from the application of knowledge gained as a result of the Human Genome Initiative." The brief announcement makes it clear that such projects are to be about the "immense potential benefit to mankind" of the project, and focus on "the best way to ensure that the information is used in the most beneficial and responsible manner." Those with less optimism apparently need not apply.

Watson is perhaps the genome project's most prominent cheerleader, having said, among other things, that the project provides "an extraordinary potential for human betterment....We can have at our disposal the ultimate tool for understanding ourselves at the molecular level....The time to act is now." And, "How can we not do it? We used to think our fate is in our stars. Now we know, in large measure, our fate is in our genes."[1]

Are there any difficult legal and ethical problems involved in mapping the human genome, or is everything as straightforward and rosy as the project's advocates paint it? NIH plans to devote only 1 to 3 percent of its genome budget to exploring social, legal, and ethical issues, and James Watson sees no dangers ahead. But Watson himself, reflecting on his own early career, wrote in 1967: "Science seldom proceeds in the straightforward, logical manner...its steps are often very human events in which personalities and cultural traditions play major roles."[2]

Predicting the Future

The human genome project has been frequently compared to both the Manhattan Project and the Apollo Project, and "big biology" is clearly happy to have its own megaproject of a size formerly restricted to physicists and engineers. But the sheer size of these two other projects obscures more important lessons. The Manhattan Project is familiar, but it still teaches us volumes about science and the unforeseen impact of technological "advance. …