Decoding the 'secret of life': the more we know,the less we have to fear

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Baffled by the first results from the mapping of the human genome? Good. Complexity is the enemy of determinism. Understanding, although it may be helped by simplification, is only valuable if it acknowledges uncertainty, confusion and ignorance. Decoding the genes which control human physical growth is an exciting story, but it is like the adventures of the early European explorers as they discovered "new worlds". They drew new maps and found out what shape the world was, and they came back with tales of strange plants, creatures and human cultures. But they had no idea how their discoveries might be exploited.

Baffled by the first results from the mapping of the human genome? Good. Complexity is the enemy of determinism. Understanding, although it may be helped by simplification, is only valuable if it acknowledges uncertainty, confusion and ignorance. Decoding the genes which control human physical growth is an exciting story, but it is like the adventures of the early European explorers as they discovered "new worlds". They drew new maps and found out what shape the world was, and they came back with tales of strange plants, creatures and human cultures. But they had no idea how their discoveries might be exploited.

Thus it is with this voyage of discovery into the inner secrets of human cell biology. The competing teams of scientists have drawn a map of the whole thing, but with quite a lot of parts marked terra incognita still, and it will be up to their successors, and to the equivalent of traders, missionaries and settlers to make sense of the discoveries.

What we do know already, however, is that the popular fears of genetic determinism, of cloning and of the creation of "designed" human beings, have been confounded by the complexity of the picture uncovered so far. The unexpectedly small number of human genes - about 30,000 instead of 100,000 - should have an important effect.

Today's findings suggest that not all genes operate in the simple deterministic way first modelled by Gregor Mendel in 1863 - the idea of dominant and recessive traits for things such as hair and eye colour. Human development is controlled by more complicated interactions between genes, between genes and chemical "switches" which turn them on and off, and between genes and the environment. The idea that there is a gene "for" this or that, whether it be homosexuality, aging, criminality or intelligence is far too simple.

That should be an important corrective, both to those scientists tempted to over-claim the significance of their work (or, more fairly, to those journalists reporting their findings) and to those anti-scientists who want to stop the adventure of discovery and get off. Those who accuse scientists of "playing god" should realise that the more scientists find out, the more they know that they do not know. Just as the early explorers discovered that there were whole continents between them and the Indies, and just as nuclear physicists keep finding smaller and more fundamental constituents of the atom, now that biologists have "decoded the secrets of life" they find it consists of further layers of riddles wrapped in enigmas.

As Sir John Sulston, the former director of the Wellcome Trust's genome research, said, understanding the information unveiled today "requires tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, of good minds looking at it in an unfettered way".

That was a none-too-subtle dig at the American private-sector rivals to Wellcome's state-sponsored research. But it is undoubtedly the case that the profit-driven competition has speeded up the whole process. Competitiveness is healthy, but so too is collaboration, and fortunately both motives are deeply embedded in the modern scientific culture. If Craig Venter's ambitions to make money from the enterprise did threaten open scientific enquiry, they have been thwarted, partly by the response of political leaders. The joint initiative of President Clinton and Tony Blair in June last year unambiguously asserted the public interest in both countries and beyond in the findings of genetic science. But the greater guarantee of scientific openness is the sheer complexity of the way genes work: tiny parts of knowledge might be captured, briefly, and exploited for profit, but understanding enough to achieve breakthroughs in treating diseases requires a great collaborative effort across the world.

The platform for that advance has now been constructed.

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