Not since Charles Darwin put forward his theory of evolution have
natural scientists sparked such broad rethinking of that bedrock
question: What is man?
Geneticists' unveiling of the first complete sequence of the
human genetic code - expected sometime this month - is already
causing a stir in the fields of medicine and law. Ultimately, this
scientific breakthrough, like Darwin's bombshell, could challenge
fixed social and theological ideas about humanity and its place in
Troubling ethical questions - such as eugenics for the unborn and
genetic profiling for health insurance - are only the beginning. In
mapping the human body's genetic code, researchers are framing a new
context for an age-old debate: Is human nature the product of free
will or predestination?
"The mapping information is going to help us rethink a whole lot
of issues, such as privacy, confidentiality, ownerships of body
parts," says Tom Shannon, professor of religion and social ethics at
Worcester Polytechnic Institute and author of a new book on the
subject. "It's really going to reshape how we think about each
For the medical profession, such changes will take time.
For one thing, the sequence is so long - some 3 billion parts -
someone would have to spend more than 47 years round the clock
merely to write it out. For another, the sequence that researchers
hope to unveil this month will still be a working draft - incomplete
and filled with small errors - that might not be finalized until
Even then, scientists won't understand the genome.
"Imagine that you have the entire works of Shakespeare in front
of you, with no spaces and no grammar, and you don't know English,"
explains Betsey Dyer, a genetics researcher and biology professor at
Wheaton College in Norton, Mass. That's what the complete sequence
will look like. It could take decades to crack it.
Still, the complete sequence will mark a new plateau in
scientific understanding. Two research teams - privately funded
Celera Genomics in Rockville, Md., and a much larger publicly funded
effort by academic, government, and foreign researchers - are racing
to complete the sequence.
"It will revolutionize information about how our bodies work, how
our bodies develop. It will lead to drugs and products that cure
disease and prevent illness in the first place," says Michael
Werner, bioethics counsel for the Biotechnology Industry
Organization in Washington.
Already, it is shaking the legal profession, particularly in
areas of patents and privacy.
Owning genetic keys
For starters, should companies own pieces of the human genetic
"The ability to obtain patent rights on human genome information
can be incredibly commercially valuable," says Elizabeth Weiswasser,
partner in the international law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges,
headquartered in New York City.
The United States has offered patents on gene sequences for
years. What's new, she says, are mass efforts at sequencing, which
portend a flood of patents and court challenges as companies jockey
for commercial advantage.
Privacy represents another looming legal tangle.
If doctors, armed with an individual's genetic code, eventually
believe they can diagnose that a person in his 20s will incur a life-
threatening disease in his 50s, who should know that information?
The person? His relatives? His employer or insurer?
"We're not interested in genetic testing," says Herb Perone of
the American Council of Life Insurers in Washington. But if such
testing becomes routine medical practice, "we don't want to be
denied basic information in the future."
Evidence of actual discrimination in the workplace remains mostly
anecdotal. When the American Management Association surveyed more
than 1,000 of its members last year, only three said they used
genetic testing on employees or job applicants. …