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)