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Gene Sequencing: No Easy Answers

The sequencing of the human genome was discussed by two of its proponents in the October 20, 1986 issue of The Scientist  (pp. 11-12). Their statements were sound and true, but incomplete in that there was no discussion of the social and ethical implications of this profound technological goal, and only good was seen to come from it. In the context of today's entrepreneurial science-technology adventures, this is at best simplistic. Science should learn from experience. That biology is trea

By | January 26, 1987

The sequencing of the human genome was discussed by two of its proponents in the October 20, 1986 issue of The Scientist  (pp. 11-12). Their statements were sound and true, but incomplete in that there was no discussion of the social and ethical implications of this profound technological goal, and only good was seen to come from it. In the context of today's entrepreneurial science-technology adventures, this is at best simplistic.

Science should learn from experience. That biology is treading in the footsteps of physics is not a new idea. Physics was in its golden era in the 1920s and 1930s. This period ended abruptly and unexpectedly in December 1938 with the discovery of atomic fission. This is not to imply that the heyday of molecular biology will lead to a parallel scenario, but that the sequencing of the human genome is as portentous an undertaking as the study of atomic structure, and is not merely a technological phenomenon. It will make it possible to insert new genes or change existing ones to "improve" the species, and to predict the likely future course of an individual's health. Given recombinant DNA technology, the knowledge it will provide is unparalleled. Indeed, Walter Gilbert and Walter Bodmer say so in so many words in The Scientist.

I believe that many scientists feel the awesome burden of this project but are too intimidated to share their views. The situation goes far beyond the scientist's personal fear of losing grant support or being rejected by a promotions committee. It has to do with his or her fundamental view, and that of the community at large, of the role of science. The scientist cannot easily separate himself from this world view, which insists that society's problems must be solved through science. World hunger, which is due to the faulty distribution of food, will not be alleviated by genetically engineered crops.

I want to raise two points that have been completely overlooked. The first concerns the massive scale of the science-technology enterprise in the twentieth century and the second the degree to which it has penetrated into the core of life.

Science on a Massive Scale

We have become accustomed to large-scale operations in our daily lives, so much so that we no longer respond to abuses that markedly decrease the quality of life. One need only take note of global environmental degradation to be aware of this. A well-known but little-heeded phenomenon has occurred; quantitative change has resulted in qualitative change. A few automobiles in a city make little difference to its character, but hundreds of thousands change the nature of the environment and degrade the city. Yet, we evaluate the automobile by thinking in the singular instead of the megaplural.

In the laboratory, recombinant DNA technology can lead to interesting discoveries. Outside the laboratory, it presents problems. For example, releasing a genetically engineered plant or microorganism in a small field test as a precursor to agricultural applications is one thing. But the final release of many agents on a large scale into the open environment is quite another, and its effect on the ecology may be unexpected. Eventually, agriculture will be affected on a global scale; indeed, that is the desired aim.

My own view of this kind of massive tampering is not sanguine. I recall that 40 years ago, DDT was the answer to agricultural pests. Today the agricultural community is literally addicted to a multitude of pesticides, with the result that more than 95 percent of our vegetables are contaminated.

The sequencing of the human genome also represents a situation where qualitative change is brought about by quantitative change. It is one thing to know the structure and function of one or a few genes; but to understand 100,000 of them, the total gene content, will clearly have social, ethical and moral consequences. This technology will generate individual genetic profiles, indicating intrinsic susceptibilities and perhaps even the probable time of onset of illness and death. The individual and societal impact is likely to be all-encompassing.

Reaching the Boundary

The second point concerns the fundamental nature of scientific discovery. Biology, in delving so deeply into the nature of things, is traversing the same path that led physics to the manipulation of nuclear energy. Now we plan deliberately to explode hydrogen bombs in our skies so as to generate X-ray laser beams for Star Wars.

Molecular biologists also seem to be approaching a boundary: the ultimate understanding of biological function. The horizon for practical applications is virtually limitless. It is disingenuous to think that knowing all about the human genome will not stimulate the imagination to seek "perfection" or to extend control over the fate of the individual. Such experiments are already on the drawing boards.

"Perfection" and "progress" are the cornerstones of our scientific worldview. When this view was formulated several hundred years ago, its proponents had no way of determining where human ingenuity would lead. They could not predict that qualitative changes would be brought about by massive changes in scale. Hence their views, which have become ours, are entirely irrelevant and in fact dangerous today. We cannot go on trusting that somehow we will muddle through each crisis. Could we muddle through a nuclear holocaust?

What is the answer to the sequencing of the human genome? Certainly not government intervention or regulation. The evidence against this approach abounds, although it might provide some breathing and thinking time for a limited period. The answer rather lies in changing our view of what we expect from science and technology. We need to be selective and not do everything that comes along.

If we cannot equate the rate of knowledge acquisition to that of wisdom, we shall soon be in deeper trouble. We have to realize that Bacon's philosophy—"to understand and control nature … so that human life be endowed with new discoveries and powers"—is anachronistic. The first step should be to utilize better what is at hand rather than to try to exploit arenas that entail obvious social and ethical problems that we are ill-equipped to handle.

Cavalieri is a molecular biologist with the Memorial Sloane-Kettering
Cancer Center, Walker Lab, 145 Post Rd., Rye, NY 10580.

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