As Gene Map Nears, Big Questions ; First Draft of the Human Genome Is Hailed for Its Medical Promise. but Ethics and Theology Are Also at Stake
Laurent Belsie, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
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 the universe.
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 other."
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 2003.
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 code?
"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. …