Salon's coverage of the human genome breakthrough

By Salon Staff

Published June 30, 2000 7:47PM (EDT)

Read Salon's coverage

Powledge is absolutely correct that the genome we speak of as being "complete" is only complete in draft form, with all the omissions, typographical errors and contradictions that implies.

I understand her desire to inject a bit of reality into the discourse, but a day of coverage on CNN and in front page national headlines are far from overkill. There can't be any doubt that this is a big deal.

If we push the classic "map" analogy, what we have today is a map of the entire world with scattered blank spots, some incorrectly rendered coastlines, and some misplaced islands and shoals. But on the whole, this draft is much better than a smaller map restricting us to some dim corner of the world. We can now point our boats in a specific direction and pretty much know when we will hit land. Even if the details aren't absolutely correct, the world of our genome is at least navigable.

The combined public and private genome efforts have spared every lab performing research on human genes many years of effort in mapping and cloning their genes of interest. And there can't be any doubt that this cuts years from the development of a hypothesis to the development of clinically useful treatments.

The nature of all biomedical research is that it takes years to go from basic science to clinical application. But the presence of this map, draft or not, allows years to be taken off the inevitable peregrinations and meanderings of research at the lab bench. Because verifying sequence takes far less time than getting it from scratch.

-- Erich Huang

Thank you for your antidote to the hype called the Human Genome Project. Don't get me wrong: As a contemporary biologist I think the genome projects including Saccharomyces (yeast), Drosophila (fruit fly) and Caenorhabditis (worm) are amazing and worth every (well, most of ...) the pennies we've thrown at it.

When the treatises and memoirs of the HGP are published in the years (or months?!) to follow, June 26, 2000, will properly be but a footnote. The actual breakthrough was the conceptual and technological feasibility of such a daunting task of sequencing 3 billion nucleotides despite all the naysayers. I cite Arthur C. Clarke's adage, "when a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is ... impossible, he is probably wrong." However, the hyped payoff in terms of drugs and health benefits are decades and billions of research dollars in the future.

And what of the funds allocated to the ethical and social implications of the HGP? The effort of folk like Philip Kitcher are crucial in directing and clarifying issues of medical privacy, genetic manipulation and so forth. This conversation is far from over and becomes even more crucial with the milestones reached this month. The academy and the laypeople must be in constant, sober discussion even as the technologists and media shout "huzzah" from the rooftops.

-- B.J.D. Cruz

While I agree with the central premise of the article -- that the Genome Project is not as far along as all the hoopla would have us believe -- many of the related scientific activities have reached stages that should give us pause. This is primarily because our moral, ethical and legal structures are so far behind where they need to be.

Historically, the scientific event that offers some powerful counter-examples of how not to introduce major advances in technology is the development of atomic and hydrogen bombs. Where this largely government-funded and controlled effort differs from the genome project is especially enlightening.

Development of the nuclear weapons technology, while it began with high-minded objectives, was always intended to develop instruments of mass destruction. There is no single clear objective for genomic research.

The development of atomic weaponry, starting with the most basic research, took two decades until the "successful" application at Hiroshima/Nagasaki. As the "Book of life?" article makes clear, it will be decades before we realize general application of the genomic map.

What will drive the agenda for genomic applications will not be scientific principles, the search for truth, or bioethics. What will drive development of genomic applications will be the short-term views and morally bankrupt desires of venture capitalists. If there's a choice between developing a cure for AIDS or cancer (development time: two to three decades) vs. offering a somewhat predictive database for insurance screening (development time: two to three years), guess how that will sort out.

As strange as it may sound, I see the unfettered development of genomic applications ultimately more terrifying than nuclear weaponry.

-- William S. Brown

Humanity started taking charge of its own evolution hundreds of millennia ago, when our ancestors first started using fire instead of running from it. The process has continued through agriculture, cloth-making, surgery, antibiotics and all the other tools and techniques we have developed to make our lives less nasty, brutish and short than they would be if we remained in our "natural" state. Genetic engineering is only the latest in a progression of advances that will make our children healthier and happier than we could ever be, as we are healthier and happier by far than any of our ancestors. Bring it on!

-- Daniel Dvorkin

James Watson, though by his standards acting quite boldly by defending the creation of genetic superhumans using foreseeable technology, doesn't go nearly far enough to satisfy me and the growing subculture of individuals who identify themselves as transhumanists.

The merely human condition has nearly exhausted its potentials. Our sciences are running up against human cognitive limits, our material living standards are stagnating and our arts and humanities are recycling the same materials over and over again. The only way to break out of a perpetual "Groundhog Day," or even to escape our eventual decline and extinction, will involve reinventing the human species with new and upgradable capabilities. But such new entities, while owing some of their lineage to humanity, will be sufficiently different to qualify as transhuman beings.

But this isn't just an opportunity for future generations. With advances in genomic and tissue engineering, the reversible cryopreservation of the human brain, and the development of interfaces between computers and the human nervous system, those of us alive today might be able to benefit from anti-aging treatments and physical and cognitive enhancements. I, for one, look forward to participating in such experiments so that I can transcend the merely human condition. Not in some mystical, neo-gnostic sense, as in "liberation from the tyranny of matter," however, but rather in a sense of living more fully instantiated in this material realm, because less vulnerable to aging, disease and destruction.

-- Mark Plus

I agree with Eric Lander's contention that germline tinkering should be avoided due to lack of knowledge. Yes, the human genome has been evolving for 3.5 million years or more and we have been able to decipher it for a year or so. What a degree of arrogance Watson displays to think that we have the capacity to improve on it! We are still but infants in our level of understanding. Should we take charge of our own evolution? Yes, indeed. But not yet. And when the time comes it must be with the informed consent of all of us, not like the debacle of GM food, foisted upon us unknowingly and secretively by a group of arrogant scientists and greedy corporations.

-- Michael Wassil

Salon Staff

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