The Washington Post reports, tongue in cheek, that the scientists have rejected car washes and bake sales in favor of several other approaches to getting the $3 billion they may need. It's clear those scientists have been paying attention to the Wall Street trendies. Among the ideas:
- Cash in on the home telemarketing craze by selling small chunks of human DNA on those late-night TV shows that peddle genuine brass-plated banker's lamps and many-faceted zircons set in real simulated platinum. The DNA, embedded in sparkling, limpid plastic, becomes a sculpture worthy of setting on your coffee table next to your personally inscribed, leather-bound, collector's edition copy of The Molecular Biology of the Gene. They ought to be able to get $29.95, at least. As author of that classic text, perhaps James Watson would consider a package deal. Nonscientists could be offered The Double Helix instead.
- Invent a new entry into the commodities market: gene futures. Investors would come up with enough money to sequence a DNA fragment containing a gene. If the gene happens to make a valuable protein and a pharmaceutical company can turn the protein into a new drug, the investor gets royalties.
- The H. Ross Perot Memorial Genome. Inveigle one of the superrich into underwriting the sequencing project. He would donate not just money, but body cells. His would be the genes to be sequenced, so his would be the human genome.
That last suggestion should make you squirm slightly as you smile, partly because something like it might indeed come to pass. But it also lays bare a central question that has gone unanswered—indeed, virtually unasked—in all the discussion of a project to sequence human genes. Joshua Lederberg posed it in these pages a few issues back (see The Scientist, November 17, 1988, p. 12): What is the human genome that is to be sequenced?
Molecular biologists need to consider carefully the social fallout attendant on the way that question gets answered. What might it say about science, and about Western society, if the paradigmatic human genome is paradigmatic only because the organism that serves as its living repository happens to be rich? Molecular biologists apparently have not absorbed the hard lesson meted out to human geneticists in the '70s. They have yet to learn that the exploration of human genes is the exploration of the literal core of humanity. It has social and political consequences that hurt people, some of whom have been scientists whose careers were damaged.
In, as they say, a related development, Walter Gilbert has announced that he is starting a new company, Genome Corp., solely to map and sequence human genes. "While everyone else is fussing, I might as well go do it," The Washington Post Health section (February 24, 1987, p. 15) quotes him as saying.
Despite his Nobel Prize, Gilbert is not moving ahead just for the sake of increasing human knowledge. For some years he has been an enthusiastic guest at the wedding of genetics and capitalism. In 1978 he started Biogen, the Cambridge biotech company, but was forced out and returned to the Harvard academic life. He is apparently now back in business with Genome Corp., which will copyright and sell information about its sequences. Says Gilbert, "if you want to read the sequence, you will have to pay for access rights. Our purpose is to make the information available to everyone, at a price."
This is a truly appalling idea, although doubtless the logical outcome of the commercialization of biology. If there was ever a development that violates the majestic cooperative human intellectual endeavor that is the moral core of science it is this: that information about the genes of the human species should be privately hoarded, doled out only bit by minuscule bit, for gold.