Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

Is the Mapping of the Human Genome Truly That Important?

Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

Is the Mapping of the Human Genome Truly That Important?

Article excerpt

SAN FRANCISCO (NYT) -- Is the mapping of the human genome the biological equivalent of the moon landing, an achievement that will revolutionize medicine and enable humanity to guide its future evolution?

Or is it an overhyped stunt ballyhooed by biotech capitalists that will fall far short of its most romantic ambitions?

Or is it somewhere in between, a technological feat like so many others, from rocketry to nuclear power, that will bring its share of wonders, disappointments and occasional disasters?

One thing seems clear: The final answer isn't likely to come for a long, long time.

"The genome project is a major contribution to society. But this is only the first step. Now comes the hard work to turn it into practical benefit for society," said David Martin, president of the San Francisco-based company Eos Biotechnology.

Scientists say the struggle to grasp the astronomical complexity of human genes, and the baffling ways in which they interact, will keep scientists burning the midnight oil for decades.

Consider the perspective offered by Harvard biologist Ruth Hubbard, who delights in pricking DNA scientists' biggest balloons: Imagine that you copied all the works of Shakespeare by stringing all the words together, without any spacing or punctuation. Then imagine that you presented the text to someone who doesn't know English.

That, Hubbard said, is what scientists face as they confront the genetic challenge of the coming century. Genes are strung together in long chains, often with no obvious rhyme or reason. So scientists will have great difficulty figuring out what all those genes do and how they do it.

The majesty of that challenge was underlined last month at a White House news conference. There, flanked by big-name geneticists, President Clinton oratorically toasted the mapping of the human genome and asserted, "Today we are learning the language in which God created life."

Although sharing Clinton's excitement and high hopes for the future, many scientists describe the achievement in less theological terms.

It is an "important landmark. But it's only one step in a long process of understanding how human genes work and how human genes relate to disease," said Lewis "Rusty" Williams, head of research and development at Chiron, one of the nation's premier biotech companies. …

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