The Human Genome Project
Wasn't too long ago that scientists thought the atom was the smallest unit of creation. Today, the atom almost seems to be a mega-structure in the total picture — a portrait made up of countless smaller subdivisions of matter that play pivotal roles in the order of the universe. As the atom gives up its secrets, scientists go deeper and deeper into the structure of life itself, seeking to understand the mysteries of the human body.
Once Upon a Gene
Were you paying attention during your high school science classes? Even if you weren't, you couldn't have missed the part about DNA and RNA. At the very least, these terms were tongue twisters, and the models that showed how they looked were really awesome. These were the foundations of genetics, a science that owes its existence to Gregor Mendel. Genetics is a branch of biology that concerns itself with heredity — that is, how different traits are inherited and how this inheritance varies among individuals of the same or related species. Genetics has gotten a real boost in recent years, as the tantalizing lure of a cure for some troublesome diseases, including depression, motivates researchers to find answers.
DNA is the shorthand for deoxyribonucleic acid, a molecule that holds the genetic instructions for every living organism. RNA, or ribonucleic acid, translates the DNA into protein products. Together, DNA and RNA are often called the “building blocks of life.”
True science knows no borders, and for the Human Genome Project (GNP) scientists from around the world worked together in this thirteen-year effort that began in October 1990. Its purpose was to map every gene in the human body — all the estimated 20,000 to 25,000 of them. Once this was done, researchers would have laid the groundwork for all future genetic research. This was a very big deal. The project was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy through its Office of Biological and Environmental Research. During this project, scientists asked their questions: Why? When? How? To these, they added, What if? Their goal was to begin to understand the genetics of disease. They would do this by determining the DNA sequence for all twenty-three pairs of chromosomes in the human body.
What's a genome?
A genome is all of the genetic information possessed by an organism. It's the complete package of genetic material for each living creature, organized by chromosomes.
Can You Patent a Gene?
Here's where problems, questions, and a sizzling controversy have arisen. Since the research of the Genome Project was funded by both public and private sector money, who owns the information the research produced? The ramifications of this question are immense. If private companies are permitted to patent their work — in essence, patent a gene — this means they own the rights to that gene and that allows them exclusive rights to work with that gene. If that particular gene turns out to be a blockbuster gene — perhaps holding the keys to understanding cancer — then they've cornered the market. The moral and ethical implications of this are staggering.
A researcher who wishes to study gene segments that have been patented by another research institution or pharmaceutical company would need permission for that study. In addition, whoever owns that patent can charge the researcher a fee for providing access to the gene. This could effectively curtail freedom of research and hold back significant advances in the development of critical drugs.
As genetics reveals more and more information about us, questions about who gets to see this information become paramount. If you suffer from depression, and your test results reveal that you carry the gene for depression, will you be denied employment? Will you be unable to get insurance coverage? These questions remain at the forefront of this new research frontier. It may be a tradeoff. By finding the genes responsible for specific medical conditions, the door is opened to find a cure. However, the economic costs of carrying employees with identifiable genetic markers for certain diseases are significant. As an employee, you want to protect your privacy. As an employer, your primary responsibility is to the economic health of your company. It remains to be seen, just how this will all play out.