We must not be afraid of the knowledge that is coded in our genes

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The Independent Online

Does today's announcement of the human genome amount to a - very long - row of beans? We should start with what today's announcement is not. It is not the full human genetic code. It is a rough draft, consisting of 90 per cent of the three billion "letters" of DNA code contained in the 23 pairs of human chromosomes. The last 10 per cent will not be finished for another three years, but the 90 per cent figure was chosen because that is the point at which the data can start to be used with confidence.

Does today's announcement of the human genome amount to a - very long - row of beans? We should start with what today's announcement is not. It is not the full human genetic code. It is a rough draft, consisting of 90 per cent of the three billion "letters" of DNA code contained in the 23 pairs of human chromosomes. The last 10 per cent will not be finished for another three years, but the 90 per cent figure was chosen because that is the point at which the data can start to be used with confidence.

Nor does the code identify the genes that are responsible for inheritable illnesses, or those that predispose people to cancer or heart disease. It is the basic platform of information that makes such tasks much easier in future - and therein lies its significance. Monday 26 June 2000 marks the symbolic point at which the pace of change in genetic science accelerated. It is on the platform of the human genome that the advances of the 21st century will be built. They include the possibility of preventive treatment for all kinds of currently untreatable conditions; of drugs to delay ageing (although the suggestion that humans will be able to live for 1,200 years belongs even now firmly in the realm of science fiction); of human cloning; and of many more wonders.

This expansion of scientific possibility, more than any previous widening of the frontiers of human knowledge, raises the most profound ethical questions. The first reaction of many is to tug at the white coats of the scientists and beg them not to carry on. But "we don't want to know" and "we shouldn't try to find out" are not the right watchwords for this, or any other, century. The idea that we should not meddle in the province of things that should be the Creator's is comforting, because it means not having to tackle the difficult moral dilemmas thrown up by the thirst for knowledge that is an essential part of the human condition. But it is wrong.

As Jim Watson, the co-discoverer with Francis Crick of the double-helix structure of DNA in 1953, said this year, "If scientists don't play god, who will?" The alternative is to exclude the search for knowledge in some areas from the disciplines of science, from scepticism, openness and peer review, and leave it to the quacks. Mr Watson also responded robustly to the suggestion that geneticists were trying to play god by predicting incurable diseases. "We should be happy to predict the future if we can reverse some bad futures," he said.

And we should be brave enough to face up to the ethical issues involved in cloning; in choosing the genetic characteristics of our children, including intelligence; in DNA-testing and the implications it has for insuring ourselves against genetic conditions. The answer is not to try to hold back the quest for knowledge, but to work out the morally right and wrong things to do with knowledge once it is acquired.

We should not be spooked by pulp-fiction Dr Frankenstein derivatives into insisting that research into genetic manipulation be banned: even in the worst nightmares of science fiction, the horror lies in the uses to which knowledge is put. It is up to governments and democratic communities of scientists and citizens to draw up the rules to prevent the abuse of genetic knowledge, and to protect privacy, social equality and environmental sustainability.

It is no use trying to hold back the future. As of today, it is already here.

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