An important technology milestone occurs tomorrow, but in the frenzy of Valentine’s Day today it may go unnoticed.
Thirteen years ago tomorrow, February 15 the Nature journal published a draft of our DNA, the human genome. Known for its two twisted molecular strands, DNA is the schematic of all life. The entire human genome sequence, called the Human Genome Project was completed in April 2003.
The human gene sequence, first explained in 1953 by James Watson and Francis Crick is available to anyone through textbooks and on the Internet. Its availability is not under patent protection because of a provision enacted in 2000 by President Bill Clinton. A Science Odyssey, published by PBS has excellent classroom units and activities related to Watson, Crick and their work with DNA sequencing. See the DNA workshop for a classroom simulation activity (requires the shockwave plug-in).
All living things have genes that potentially can be mapped. Humans have between 20,000- 30,000 genes. Like a fingerprint, every person’s DNA sequence is unique. However, great advancements in healing and cures are possible if common genes can be found between people with different diseases and hereditary conditions. The International HapMap Project continues research to create a database of gene similarities shared by diseases such as various cancers, diabetes, sickle cell anemia, and many more. According to King, Rotter, et al. common diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, obesity, diabetes, psychiatric illnesses and inflammatory diseases are caused by combinations of multiple genetic and environmental factors (1).
Largely because of technology’s role in DNA sequencing and the human genome projects, biotech companies and biotech research flourishes. Bioethicists address the ethical issues surrounding DNA testing and sequence mapping which may lend itself to discriminatory practices if left unprotected. The Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications program, formed in 1990, continues to consider.
1. King, R. A., Rotter, J. I. & Motulsky, A. G. The Genetic Basis of Common Diseases Vol. 20 (eds Motulsky, A. G., Harper, P. S., Scriver, C. & Bobrow, M.) (Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, 1992)
For more information, see Garrison Keillor’s essay in The Writer’s Almanac.