WHAT started as a shot in the dark just about a decade ago, has today emerged as a coordinated study. Genome is one of the exceptional field of science in which the scientific community world over is willing to collaborate and keep each other abreast of developments. This is so because the human genetics is such a vast, mind boggling field that it would need the working of multiple hands and heads to unravel, even in part, the secrets that lie beneath the skin.
A beautiful book on genome written by Victor K McElheny, a senior science reporter narrates the story of its growth and revolution. ‘Drawing the Map of Life: Inside the Human Genome Project’ is an absorbing account of the progress made by scientific community across continents to understand the working of the human body. How the genes work and react, why two people exposed to the same conditions react differently and why seemingly different people behave similar? Those are the basics.
“The research of the last ten years has brought a shower of scientific surprises that overturned many previous notions of what a gene or a genome is or does. Genomic knowledge is spreading into the fields of agriculture, energy and environmental protection, all of which have the most profound implication for human health” says the author in the preface, setting the tone for the reach and extent of the book. In fact, this is the first account to deal in-depth with the intellectual input that has gone into genome.
Intertwined into the story of genome is that of money, the disharmony between the for-profit and non-profit researches, the seemingly excruciatingly slow pace of research and the lack of ‘visible’ progress.
There have been several milestones in the path of genome progress. The author mentions those crucial meetings that took place in obscure places, where scientist met and thrashed out issues, not always successfully, of course. One of them was the ‘Alta Summit’ in 1984, in Hiroshima. The US Department of Energy was trying to locate the mutations in the genes of 12,000 children of survivors of the 1945 bomb attacks. This conference was sponsored by the DoE as it had been frustrated in missing this mutation. Though the conference did not ‘achieve’ much, the scientist, snow-bound for five days were very excited to go back and pursue the new lines discussed at the conference.
There had been murmur of protests over the money being spent on the genome project and its effectiveness. The atomic bomb project had resulted in a physical bomb that was tested, the moon project had resulted in man landing in the moon, but the genome project was not yet showing tangible results. The cost comparison is absurd because the bomb cost $2 billion in 1940, equivalent of $20 billion today. And the American moon programme cost $20 billion, which in today’s value would be $130 billion, argues the author. The genome project on the other hand has a budget of $ three billion, representing less than two per cent of the total health budget and less than two per cent of the total annual American medical bill of some $2.5 trillion.
The market in the meanwhile was also at play. The private efforts in genome were working simultaneous with the public project. However, there was no coordination and the scientists felt that the two may be duplicating work and thereby wasting energy and money. They called for some arrangement to share information. According to the book, Celera, a company that was working on genome announced some advances made. Its share price soured and the company was unwilling to share the data to non-subscribers to its database. However, persuaded by the scientific community, US President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair in simultaneous press conference called for “unencumbered access to raw human sequence data.” This brought the prices of Celera and other biotech firms tumbling down. The statement was accused of causing “loss of over fifty billion dollars in market capitalisation in the biotechnology sector in two days.”
The significance and importance of the genome study can be gauged from the speech delivered by Eric Lander at White House in 1999. He said “Quite apart from its medical significance, the texture variation in the human genome holds great fascination. Any two human beings on this earth are 99.9 per cent identical at the DNA level – only difference in 1,000 letters. So as you look to your neighbour to the left and to the right, you should appreciate how nearly identical you are.”
“On the other hand, one difference in 1,000 letters in a genome of three billion letters still translates to three million differences between any two individuals. So if you look to your left and to your right again, you can also revel in your absolute uniqueness.”
The study of the genes has already started helping the humanity. According to the book, using DNA fingerprinting, 220 prisoners in 33 American states have been exonerated. The first use of DNA forensics was used on a boy from Ghana who, a woman from England said she was the mother of. In India too, several paternity cases have been sorted out using DNA forensics. The latest sensational case, where the man is refusing to submit to the test is that of ND Tiwari.
Genome has started finding answers to diseases. The macular degeneration problem, a genetic disease, diabetes, also a largely genetic disorder are all in the grips of the genome scientists.
The application of genome goes beyond medicine, into the world of environment and energy. Genetically modified foods are expected to help humanity overcome hunger and poverty. How far will this help in reality is a conjecture question. For, the genetically modified foods are yet to be accepted as safe by a huge body of scientists. Nevertheless, genome is a study that could transform man into superman.
The author has reported for Science magazine, Boston Globe and New York Times on science. The book is an academic work, but the story is gripping, definitely an interesting read.
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