The Human Genome Project

Andy Quinn

Copyright 1999

The human genome project is something that I have been very interested with ever since first learning of it. I had heard bits and pieces of what it is about, but my interest was greatly stimulated by Dr. Whited in basic genetics 311 last spring. The discussion that we had regarding the project left me with several ideas and questions about not only the process and ethics involved, but the future of the study of genetics as a whole.

To begin discussion about the HGP, we first must understand what it is. It is a massive undertaking of collaboration of geneticists that begin in 1990. Their goals are to identify all the estimated 80,000 to 100,000 genes in human DNA and determine the sequences of 3 billion bases composed of adenine, thymine, cytosine, and guanine. The project is being funded jointly by the Department of Energy and the National Institute of Health. This massive undertaking is estimated at a cost of three billion dollars, with the most current target date for the project's completion at the year 2003. They will then store this information in a centralized database so it can be used as tools for their analysis. Also as a first for science, they are going to address the logical, ethical, and social issues that the project will give rise to.

What is a genome and why is it important? A genome is the DNA that an organism possesses. The DNA is made up of combinations of the four bases (A,T,C,&G) that I listed above. The sequence of these bases code for proteins that determine how an organism looks, it's viability, and sometimes even how it behaves. That is why this project is so important. The possibilities of what we can learn about ourselves are endless.

The benefits of this project are far reaching. Many disease alleles have already been identified. Having the knowledge of where a specific trait is and the sequence that codes for it allows geneticists to perform tests to check whether or not an individual will be affected. This opens up a great opportunity to identify individuals with a disease before it could be diagnosed. This would allow for earlier treatment and chances at possible prevention of certain disorders.

There are many human medical problems that can be controlled by early detection. This program would be incredibly beneficial to the fight of those diseases. Also as a medical benefit is the possibility of gene therapy drugs that could prevent or cure disease. They also could reach as far as to eradicate many of the killers that have plagued mankind for generations. These are some of the reasons that many large companies are attempting to align themselves with other companies that have the technology to capitalize from these new findings. Projections of DNA-based products and technologies in the biotech industry are exceeding $45 billion by the year 2009.

Exploration into the function of each gene discovered will continue well into the 21st century. The knowledge gained from this will lead us to better understand the cause of genetically related diseases. Having the ability to recognize the causation of a disease will shift technology from trial and error treatments to specific drugs designed to treat the gene sequence and protein structure. This is called gene therapy and is the most exciting aspect of the HGP. It gives the potential to cure genetic and acquired diseases, and to bolster immunity towards certain diseases by using normal genes to replace or supplement a defective gene.

The benefits not only apply to medicine, but also to health care, energy sources, agriculture, and cleanup of the environment. Health care costs would be greatly reduced by treating earlier to prevent major processes and surgeries. The energy field would benefit by having the ability to test the effects of new energy sources on genes discovered by the HGP. Low-level radiation exposure and other toxic products could be better understood with testing.

Agriculture would receive a great deal of knowledge that could lead to improved cultivars of food and feed crops. The animal production of ag would also better understand the phenotypes and traits exhibited by meat producing livestock. At this point in time, any knowledge of genetic systems improves all understanding, not just the species that is being studied. Ag would also benefit through improved environmental cleanup. Better knowledge of genetics could give rise to new ways to reclaim soils otherwise thought to be useless. This would make more farmable land available to prevent food shortages.

Now that we have looked at the generals and the benefits of the HGP, lets now look into the public debates surrounding the project. As can be imagined, this is a very hot topic. Since we have already looked at some of the benefits, I'll go into the pro side first.

The basis of the "for" argument is the possibilities of improved health and understanding of the human race. This argument places its validity with the value of human life. Many people believe that having a slight chance to cure cancer or any other disease or disorder is incredible, and we should jump at that chance. Hundreds of thousands of people die every year from many killer diseases. There are some of these that can be prevented with early detection. Others, when caught early enough in the disease cycle, can be treated and contained so the patient can live longer, happier lives.

There is also a financial pro argument based on two different principles: the reduced health care costs and the chance of private business sector profit. Health care is an issue that has been hotly debated for years. It is one of most economically significant programs that our government practices. There have been many ideas on how the program could be run to cut costs while maintaining adequate care and how to provide it for all citizens. Replacing expensive treatments with less costly earlier therapies would reduce the total government expenditure by a great margin, thereby increasing the dollars available to provide healthcare for more individuals.

There are many arguments being used on the con side. One of them is the issue of privacy. The FBI and other agencies would plan to use the knowledge of the genome to free wrongfully convicted criminals and imprison guilty parties by DNA evidence. Many people believe that the government doesn't have the right to keep their DNA on file like a common fingerprint. DNA is considered much more private and therefore less available for public knowledge.

Another con argument is the fear of taking our knowledge too far. In the movie "Gattaca", people who want a child have the ability to choose all of its characteristics. They decide the height, eye color, IQ, sex, and all of its other traits. Could the HGP lead to the ability to do this kind of unnatural selection? We have no way of knowing at this early stage, but the fear still exists.

The fact that public money is being spent on this project which inevitably will lead to private sector profit is another topic of debate. Patents are currently being applied for that would benefit companies from taxpayer money. Many people believe that if the HGP is going to be a source of profit for industry, they should fund the research, not the common taxpayer.

So far I have listed the basics of the HGP and the argument for and against, but I have yet to let my own opinion be heard. I am for the HGP, but I have a major clause with that backing. I believe that a new centralized body needs to be formed to keep watch over the genetic world and ensure that limits are not overstepped.

I think that the upside possibilities to this are truly endless. I, like nearly everyone else, have lost friends and family to disease. We currently have a damn good medical knowledge, but we still lose people who are important to someone every day. Fathers and mothers could live longer to watch and aid in their children's' growth. Children that now may only live a few precious years on this Earth could live long and happy lives. The chances for improved lives are incredible.

As far as the governing body that I mentioned above, I feel that it is needed to prevent science from overstepping the limits of what the public can handle. If tomorrow the scientific community released the first genetically perfect human, how would people respond? If 25 years from now the first genetically perfect human were to be introduced, how would we respond? I do have a fear of mimicking the movie "Gattaca". That is why I believe in a panel of geneticists and nonscientists to constantly monitor and review just how far we are taking our advanced knowledge. I know that when I have children, I don't want a doctor asking me to select everything about my child. I prefer to leave it up to chance.


Consulting Resources Corporation Newsletter. Spring 1999.

Gattaca. 1998

Whited, D.A. Genetics 311. North Dakota State University. Spring 1999.

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