By Chris Barts
In most of your cells, coiled and twisted inside a protein sheath, is a complex chemical that tells more about you than you know about yourself. It's copied, practically flawlessly, many times, each time creating a new cell along with it. This chemical also determines what the cell does, using only four separate building blocks as code. This chemical, as most have already guessed, is deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), and is all I have described it as and more.
As most people these days know, scientists are working on sequencing the entire structure of DNA, a process that consists of finding where each chemical building block is placed in the entire molecule. A large task, considering there are roughly three billion base pairs, or pairs of building blocks, called bases. But they've come a long way. Recently, the Human Genome Project (the ones working on the sequencing) fully sequenced chromosome 22, one of 46 chromosomes in each non-gamete cell. At the current time, the Human Genome Project expects to have high-quality sequencing information for all DNA in the human body by 2003. We'll know how 90 percent of the human genome is sequenced by the summer of this year. I'm certain that most of us expect to live until then. That means we'll have to make some tough decisions sooner than we think.
Most of those tough decisions will be based upon our coming knowledge of the function of each of those base pairs, particularly how they relate to genetic diseases. For example, there is a disease called Huntington's disease. It is a disease that progressively destroys brain tissue typically beginning midlife, 30-45 years of age, but can begin as young as two. It is currently incurable. In 1993, we developed a test that determines whether or not an individual has it, but cannot predict the age of onset. The dilemma comes in because it is incurable, and it is also invariably fatal. If a person had a family history of Huntington's disease, would that person want to know if he had it?
Another place to make tough decisions is the voting booth. Everyone has heard of how DNA can be used to solve crimes, and there have been instances where people have been freed from, or placed on, death row based upon genetic material discovered. Truly, knowledge of DNA can influence life and death decisions. To expedite the process of analyzing genetic information in crime cases, there are ideas floating around that everyone should have his or her genes placed on file with police departments. This may seem like a good idea, but it isn't. The information contained in the genes is private, not to be placed on file if the person is innocent of a major crime. Personal privacy always outweighs the group in a civilized society.
Those are just two of a large and growing group of ethical concerns growing out of genetic research. Education, as always, is the key to making the right decisions.