The Guardian July 19, 2000


Human genome project:
A joint effort to benefit humanity

by Huang Wei

In the near future, everyone, if permitted by law, could acquire a genome 
map of his or her own, which records the mysteries and secrets of their 
lives. With the maps parents could learn facts about their newborn babies, 
such as what kind of character they will have when they grow up, how tall 
they will be, whether they will be overweight, what diseases they will 
contract, and when they will contract them. Doctors, according to the 
information provided by the maps, could also tell parents what fatal 
diseases their children might develop.

Creating a map like this is one of the ultimate goals of the on-going 
international Human Genome Project (HGP).

This joint effort, aiming to map out all of the human genes, which 
determine almost all physical characteristics in the human body, will be 
the first great scientific project completed in the new century, and will 
have a widespread impact.

The United States officially launched the 15-year HGP in October 1990, with 
the US Government investing US$3 billion. Shortly after this beginning, 
Japan, Germany, Britain and France joined the project and made investments.

"HGP is a global engineering project where for the first time humans are 
systematically and comprehensively decoding and studying the genetic 
materials of the human body.

It is the most daring and far-sighted project in the history of the natural 
sciences", said Dr Zhang Meng of the Institute of Genetics under the 
Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).

"The birth of HGP comes from life science reaching a certain stage; 
understanding the human genome was the next", Yang noted. 

Geneticists put forward the concept of the gene as early as the 19th 
century, that is, the idea that genes are the heredity materials 
determining the character and properties of living organisms. However, the 
explanations of the chemical nature of genes did not appear until the first 
half of the 20th century.

In the 1950s, scientists confirmed that genes are the fragments of 
deoxyribonucleic acids (DNA) responsible for protein synthesis in the body 
of organisms. All the genes of an organism combined make up its genome.

Scientists also confirmed that DNA is composed of two spirally wound chains 
that form pairs of chromosomes.

According to Zhang Meng, a human being has about 100,000 genes that are 
contained in the 23 double-helix chromosome pairs.

Tremendous international joint effort

Currently, hundreds of scientists in dozens of first-rate laboratories 
around the world have dedicated themselves to this project, and are 
accelerating their efforts to map out the sequence of the 100,000 genes and 
three billion nucleotide pairs in the human body.

When completed, the whole set of human gene sequencing materials will be 
published on the internet, forming a complete human genetic information 
database.

Since genes were proven to be the basic materials determining all life 
phenomena, including birth, growth, senility, illness, and death, 
geneticists have been constantly improving genetic research technologies in 
their efforts to explore the structure and functions of genes.

In the 1970s, DNA recombinant technology, also know as genetic engineering, 
was successfully invented and put to use, and segregation and cloning of 
genes appeared.

In tumour research, which attracts the most attention, geneticists have 
cloned and identified numerous cancer genes that have close relations with 
tumour and cancer-inhibiting genes.

Many genes that cause hereditary diseases, pathogenic genes relating to 
other diseases and virogenes have also been identified.

With these successes, people saw hope of conquering terminal illnesses, 
which led to a rising enthusiasm for genetic research.

Molecular biology, which focuses on genetic research, thus became a leading 
branch in life sciences and attracted great attention in the latter half of 
the 20th century.

Process accelerated

HGP originally planned to complete all the decoding work by the year 2005. 
Over the past years however, the process has been accelerated due to 
scientists having more experiences, the introduction of more advanced 
computers, and the emergence of new breakthroughs in technology.

Moreover, the economic significance of the project has been becoming 
increasingly obvious, attracting the participation of some powerful 
enterprises.

Benefits and hidden troubles

Many experts predict that the successful implementation of the HGP is bound 
to have a tremendous impact on various aspects concerning human life and 
development in the 21st century.

The pharmaceutical sector will be the first to benefit. HGP will trigger a 
medical revolution, which will produce effective cures for more than 4,000 
hereditary disease, including cancer, mental disorder, high blood pressure, 
diabetes, and cardiovascular and cerebrovascular diseases  ailments 
closely related to family heredity.

According to Zhang Meng, the disclosure of all human genetic codes will 
make it possible for experts to diagnose a disease long before its symptoms 
appear, and will allow effective treatment through gene therapy.

The information will also help with the use gene technologies in operations 
on fertilised eggs or embryos in order to repair their genetic 
physiological defects and alleviate the suffering caused by hereditary 
diseases. These strides in medicine will greatly improve the health of 
humankind.

With the aid of the human genome map, scientist will be able to develop 
therapies and medicine targeting the root causes of diseases

It will be more convenient to analyse the gene sequence of causative 
agents, and advanced computers will be used to analyse the interactions of 
genes and medicine, thus rapidly determining which drugs are most effective 
on diseases.

This genetic information will also greatly accelerate the development of 
new drugs.

Another possible benefit of the development of gene technologies is the 
creation of organs for transplant. Scientists will be able to cultivate 
transgenic animals by transplanting fragments of human genes into the 
bodies of animals whose organs are similar in size to human organs. This 
will make it possible to produce organs for patients needing organ 
transplants.

On the other hand, many experts have expressed worry about HGP. They fear 
that the decoding of genetic codes in human genes may have unforeseen 
repercussions, not only for the human species, but for all organisms on 
earth.

A British theoretical physicist recently noted that although the human body 
is the most complicated anatomical system so far discovered, human DNA has 
not undergone any major changes in the past 10,000 years.

However, the physicist predicts, with this new genetic information, the 
situation may change in the future.

The human species may not wait for slow evolution; and man-made factor 
could be employed to raise the complexity of DNA in the human body or to 
thoroughly redesign DNA.

This means that in the coming millennium, "new humans" or new species could 
be produced at people's will. This prospect obviously causes worry, as does 
the idea of cloning entire human beings, said the British physicist.

A more pressing issue is how to protect the rights and personal information 
of individuals in terms of legal and ethical aspects, so as to prevent the 
emergence of discrimination based on DNA.

Zhang Meng noted that with the completion of the HGP, in the near future 
all newborns may be given a genome map (possibly recorded on a chip which 
records their genetic codes.

If this really happens, Zhang continued, some serious questions will arise: 
should they be aware of their genetic codes as they grow up?

Knowing their genetic deficiencies, will they develop an inferiority 
complex?

Are the genetic codes private information that should be kept confidential?

When the codes of those who carry genetic factors of diseases such as 
hepatitis and cancer are disclosed, who can guarantee that they will be 
free of discrimination or have equal opportunities in the recruitment of 
students, workers and soldiers?

Should life insurance companies know about the genetic codes of their 
clients? If they are given access to this information, what would be the 
result?

"I myself have full confidence in the future of our world", said Yang 
Huanming. "We should not stop our research because of this risk or that 
unforeseen problem. The subsistence and development of mankind can't do 
without natural scientific research."

Yang said he believes that progressive forces will invariably make 
important scientific achievements that will benefit humankind, and that 
good will always prevail over bad.

As a member of the Bio-Ethics Commission of UNESCO, Yang has urged at many 
international and domestic meetings for geneticists to attach importance to 
social responsibilities.

He has also suggested that discussion on ethical, legal, and social issues 
related to human genome research be held in all social communities.

Many scientists have also urged that clinicians, scientists, and the 
general public be educated about genetics, in order to ensure that the 
achievements of human genome research will be used only to improve people's 
health, and that abuse and misuse of genetic information be prevented.

* * *
From Beijing Review February 28, 2000 (abridged)

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