Quest to Know Human DNA Is Good - Only Some Uses Are Bad

WASHINGTON — For two years public and private scientists have been racing at breakneck speed to decode man's full genetic blueprint, or genome.

In November the government's Human Genome Project announced that it had completed mapping the first billion “letters” — or basic chemical units in the human DNA alphabet.

In early April the Human Genome Research Institute, an international consortium of public- and foundation-funded laboratories, announced that it had decoded another billion letters. The group said it is now two-thirds of the way toward its goal of wrapping up the entire genome of 3 billion letters, and that a “host of disease genes” have been identified.

In order to guarantee that all scientists have access to the information — and to avoid patent lawsuits in the future — the institute is daily placing its research findings on the Internet.

In an effort to better understand the genome research and the moral implications that it may offer, the Register recently spoke with Dr. David Byers, executive director of science and human values at the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Rich Rinaldi: What is the human genome?

Dr. David Byers: The human genome is the genetic makeup of the physical body, everything from your skeleton to [your] biochemical reactions. The genes make your body go and they provide the information to specify everything in your body from blue eyes to whether you can run fast or not.

Are there a certain amount of genes in the body, or is there a gene in every cell?

Identical copies of DNA exists in every cell. We have somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000 genes.

Have you and the bishops been in touch with any of the people who are driving this?

I've had some contact with the government project through the bishops’ committee on science and human values. Dr. Francis Collins, the head of Human Genome Project, was a speaker in 1997 at one of the workshops we provide to the bishops on a regular basis. He was able to provide some information directly to the bishops on the progress of his project.

Both the government and private groups are trying “sequence” our genetic material. What does this mean?

The most basic level of our genetic material is made up of nucleotides. There are a total of about 3 billion of them in the DNA in each cell in your body. The sequence is the way the nucleotides are ordered along the DNA.

There's another term, “mapping.” I ask because we keep hearing that mapping the sequence of the genome will provide information about the human body regarding disease, etc.

Down the road, yes, that could be the case. But a fundamental distinction must be made. There's a great difference between knowing the sequence and knowing what the genes do. There's several jumps there. Even knowing the sequence of the human genomes, you still don't know where the genes are because a lot of the genetic material doesn't appear to code for anything. It's just there. So you still have to identify the sections that are actual genes and then you have to figure out through a very long and arduous process what those genes do.

I understand the mapping could be done by June and that it will be available on the internet. Whom will this benefit and why do it on the Internet?

It's certainly a step in the right direction. It will provide the raw material for other researchers. It's not going to tell you much about the gene, or why you have blue eyes. I don't know if the gene for blue eyes has even been identified yet. Nearly all human traits are coded by more than one gene, perhaps by hundreds or even thousands in some cases. It's rare that you will find “a” gene that does “a” thing. Most physical traits are caused by a multiplicity of genes so not only do you have to go from knowing the sequence to knowing what a gene does, you have to go from knowing the sequence to identifying a number of genes and then figuring out not only what they do, but how they relate to one another.

What are the moral implications?

Information is good. We are the Catholic Church, and the Church is preeminently the intellectual Church. Knowledge is a good thing, we seek the truth and this is part of truth. Knowing the sequence of our genes is knowing something about ourselves that we did not know before. Like any information it can be used for good or for ill.

Is there cause to wonder about the motives of the people behind this work?

The purpose of the people who are attempting to sequence the genome, of course, is good. They want to develop cures for disease. Perhaps there are ways for eliminating handicapping conditions through genetic research and intervention.

Yet, this can also be used for evil purposes.

It is possible to imagine evil uses for some of this information. For example — and this is science fiction at this point — a government might be able to control certain genetic traits through selective abortion or other population control techniques to sort of mold the population, maybe make it more docile, easier to control, something along those lines. Power can be used for good or ill. The sequencing project in itself is really just finding out stuff. We are not at the point yet where you're talking about a technology that can be used for certain purposes. You're talking about a body of data which can then be further investigated.

Is it unusual that governments would work together on something like this, as the United States and England have? President Clinton and England's Prime Minister Tony Blair have recently announced their governments’ cooperation on the genome project.

It doesn't surprise me. The scientific community is, by definition, international and, ideally, scientific information of this importance would be shared globally. I suspect that's the context in which President Clinton and Prime Minister Tony Blair were speaking.