Lost on the Gene Map: We Are Still Unequipped to Deal With the Ethical and Medical Implications of the Human Genome Project
A TINY DOT OF DNA, thousands of times smaller than a pinhead, exists in almost every cell of our bodies. Stored in its tightly wound double helix is the wisdom of nearly four billion years of evolution — the hereditary information that decides our hair colour, whether we might stutter, or if we have the potential to win an Olympic gold medal. Human DNA is typically divided into forty-six chromosomes, twenty-three inherited from each parent; theDNA on one chromosome includes hundreds, sometimes thousands, of genes. These gene segments of DNA(deoxyribonucleic acid) encode data that the cell expresses as proteins to build and operate the various parts of the body. The seven billion faces in the world, all different, reveal individual differences in our genetic makeup. But so much of our collective DNA is the same that we share a common genetic heritage: the human genome.
To comprehend genomes is to begin to unlock the mysteries of life. One of the aims of the Human Genome Project, an international research program launched in 1990, was to map and then sequence every bit of DNA in a composite human genome. The project was heralded as the first step toward personalized medicine, a new age in health care when prevention and treatment of illnesses would be guided by examining a person’s genome and genetic predispositions. Understandably, expectations for the Human Genome Project ran high, and in 1996 President Bill Clinton glowingly foretold a not-too-distant future in which parents, armed with a map of their newborn’s genetic structure, could identify the risks for illness. In his vision, the fruits of the project would help “organize the diet plan, the exercise plan, the medical treatment that would enable untold numbers of people to have far more full lives.”