person_pin A "Nuclear" Era … But I Have No Fear

by Steven Meloan

Published in Issue No. 25 ~ June, 1999

“We used to think our fate was in the stars. Now we
know that, in large part, our fate is in our genes.” – James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA

Some might still call it double-helix hype, the latest techno-flavor of the month. But when future history books are written, the dawning of the new millennium will likely present genetics-related discoveries on page one.

While the world’s media spotlight continues to glare down on the tabloid-ready topic of animal cloning, most forget that the cloning process is only the tip of the genetic iceberg. In the end, the technique is little more than a cellular Xerox – with obvious pitfalls and uncertainties. It may be fine for cows and medical mice, for research and for farming, but why not improve upon things a bit? Since DNA is really nothing more than a highly complex organic program, why not go to the source, get in there and hack the Mother-code itself? Just such a thing may soon be in store – thanks to the Human Genome project.

This three billion-dollar undertaking, managed by the Department of Energy and the National Institute of Health, has set a fifteen-year goal of mapping every gene of the human species. In addition, its researchers will decode the entire genetic sequence of all 23 chromosomal pairs. Begun in 1990, the project is already several years ahead of its originally projected completion date of 2005. With a global team of scientists and computational-biologists utilizing super-computers and massive, custom-designed genetic databases, the pace of this reverse engineering of our innermost workings is increasing exponentially.

This second “nuclear” era of the twentieth century began in 1953 with the discovery of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), the by now familiar, distinctive double-helix molecular structure that provides the genetic code for all living things. And as the term suggests, this chemical code is more than mere data – it is a much a program as any found in the computer software world.

The human genetic instruction set, or “genome,” is comprised of some 100,000 genes, each of them coding for a particular functional protein. Every gene, meanwhile, consists of thousands of nucleotide sequences. Unlike the binary (zero and one) code of computers, DNA has a basic alphabet of four: A (Adenine), G (Guanine), C (Cytosine), and T (Thymine). While the computer “byte” contains eight digital bits, the logical unit of DNA is the “triplet code.” Each group of three nucleotide bases (say, C-T-A) codes for a particular amino acid, the building blocks of all protein. These triplet codes (or “codons”) instruct the methodical, step-by-step addition of amino acids, until, finally, a completed protein emerges.

The entire human genome is currently estimated at about 3 billion nucleotides (we will soon know for sure). In the short term, this tidal wave of genetic information may tell us far more about our fate – particularly concerning probable health – than we really care to know. Already, genes have been found for such afflictions as Huntington’s disease, sickle cell anemia, Alzheimer’s, muscular dystrophy, cystic fibrosis, and a particularly virulent form of breast cancer. And the defects keep coming. And while some merely indicate a predisposition, others, like the Huntington’s gene, are “causal.” With these, it is a virtual certainty you will acquire the disease – and for most such afflictions, there is little or no treatment.

As a result, genetic privacy looms as a major issue of the early twenty-first century. Even now, many HMOs are pressing for access to such information. Cases have recently arisen where health insurers have pressured parents to abort pregnancies testing positive for cystic fibrosis. Such genetic testing is already commonplace in screening for disorders like Down’s Syndrome. But where will we ultimately draw the line? Folk singer Woody Guthrie inherited the Huntington’s gene and spent the last ten years of his life incapacitated in a New York hospital bed. But were the previous decades of his life not worth living? Where would popular music be without his influence on such artists as Bob Dylan? And what of Stephen Hawking, the renowned theoretical physicist? Though he suffers from the devastating effects of Lou Gherig’s disease (a now diagnosable, but untreatable, genetic affliction), Hawking continues to probe the outer conceptual reaches of our universe like no scientist since Einstein.

The increasing cost-consciousness of HMOs, combined with this growing body of genetic data, threatens to exert financial pressures bordering on eugenics. Meanwhile, for those already living, such genetic scarlet letters may prove nearly impossible to keep hidden – particularly when they will eventually be decipherable from a mere strand of hair. This growing sense of genetic dread is already seeping into our pop-cultural sensibilities with such recent films as Gattaca.

For now, many with a family history of genetic disease elect to be tested outside of their health plan. But even for those who suspect a causal gene defect, the numbers being tested are surprisingly low. The results often only serve to take away the one thing they have left – hope – while offering nothing in return.

Even subtle defects could radically limit one’s choices. Would it be reasonable to bar those with a tendency toward lung cancer from working in nightclubs? Should women with breast cancer genes be banned from jobs involving exposure to known cancer-causing agents? Perhaps insurance policies will one day require a complete gene scan before even considering you–and then disqualify you for working in any “precipitating” professions. What self-respecting insurance agent wants to write a policy on an already smoldering house?

Every day it becomes possible to know more of our genetic fate, but who will choose to gaze into a crystal ball that presents an almost immutable fate? Yet such dire scenarios could soon change – and drastically. In 1990, the first gene therapy was successfully performed. With this, scientists successfully inserted a missing gene into the white blood cells of a four-year-old girl, restoring a crucial enzyme to her immune system. While the fix only lasted the lifetime of the treated cells, the researchers have since gone straight to the source – adding the gene to the actual marrow stem cells.

And this is only the beginning. We may one day not only have the cellular technology to add missing genes (a relatively simple process), but also to tweak defective genes – genetic bug-fixing, if you will. And as we become more and more able to employ gene therapy in disease treatment, the technique will inevitably lead to more subtle “improvements.”

In the short term, such manipulations may seem beyond even a remote possibility. As with any computer program, having the actual code there in front of you is only half the battle. While we will certainly have that much upon completion of the Human Genome Project, understanding the logic detailed therein is another task entirely – and will likely take much longer than merely deciphering our simple nucleotide sequences. While some genes have easily defined functions, others appear to be redundant with one another – or to perform complex switching functions, turning on and off other genetic locations.

Nevertheless, we’re already well on our way. The system is not beyond the scope of our understanding. And once we’re finally there, where will the fixing stop? This calls into question the very notion of “normalcy” and “disease.” What if genes are eventually found for alcoholism, obsessive compulsive disorder, or schizophrenia? Will we see pressure from insurance companies and society to “cure” such conditions in-utero? And what of parents who object to gene therapy for moral or religious reasons? Will they face legal consequences similar to today’s Christian Scientists? Might they not later be charged with child abuse? And could children later sue their parents for gene therapy not taken? Or therapy that was taken?

And what of more subtle personality traits? Supposing a gene is found for risk-taking, or aggressive behavior? Could a genetic condition someday become a legal defense? “Your honor, as you can see from my projected gene scan, I have chromosome 10 and 18 defects, resulting in a serotonin imbalance. This, as you know, contributes to emotional, and aggression, instability. My family was of limited means, and could not afford gene vector intervention…” The entire concept of personal culpability may well come into question.

The flip side of this, meanwhile, could be a growing sense of genetic determinism. Will untreated “personality defects” create a discriminated-against, genetic underclass? Consider a landmark classroom study of the 1960s. Researchers purported to test a roomful of elementary school students for IQ level. In reality, however, they simply assigned random values to each student. Nevertheless, at the end of the semester, those students with the “high IQs” had all received the best grades. Expectations can have a powerful influence – both positively and negatively.

Meanwhile, what kind of therapy should even be considered? Supposing a “shyness” gene is found – and that it could be corrected? Or even one for being gay? Where does “defect” end and human variability begin? And on a related note, what would become of the arts? After all, the artistic mind is by definition dysfunctional – interpreting the world from a less-than-normal perspective and set of experiences. For artists like Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, Henry Miller, or Woody Allen, the very nature of their work is predicated upon a degree of suffering and dysfunctionality. For some, their angst is their art. Try genetically teasing out the personal demons of each, and what becomes of artistic merit?

We may increasingly find ourselves in the Faustian driver’s seat of our own genetic destiny – and the forks in the road will be many. Evolution, while maddeningly slow, has the wisdom of time on its side. Even such apparent “diseases” as sickle cell anemia sometimes serve their biological purposes. The recessive sickle cell trait affords a built-in resistance to malaria – but brings with it an anemic’s vulnerability to high-altitude (given its inherent lack of oxygen). So, in essence, a relative genetic defect in one region becomes an evolutionary benefit in another.

And temporal issues also come into play. If we were to design the ultimate human beings of one hundred years ago, it would likely be a man with a strong back, and a woman with wide hips – both with plenty of natural resistance to disease and infection. In today’s post-industrial era, however, high IQ and inter-personal skills would likely be the premium quality – along with an ability to function without much sleep!

If we do enter into an age of catalogue-like genetic design, will we one day experience generational trait-fads – like purple-colored eyes? Will last year’s female waif look be surplanted (by genetic design) by the rounded Botticelli mold, and then in turn by the nostalgic Baywatch bod? More ominously, what will be the impact on society of such a quality-control paradigm of life? Will we see a lessening in human variability – a generation of Kens and Barbies? For the most part, norms of physical appearance are relatively universal. But behavior and temperament vary wildly between cultures. Since different societies value different human attributes, it only seems logical that some might opt to produce more “workers,” placing a cap on those with less-valued temperaments (read: “artistic”). And how will such beehive dynamics affect the world marketplace? One could easily imagine more highly driven, capitalistic nations precipitating a global, inflationary spiral of genetically induced “industriousness.”

Even Ted Kazinsky, the infamous Unabomber, has focused in on the difficult genetic/ethical issues ahead. Clearly, the very values that define what is normal – what is disease, defect, or simple variability – are often highly dependent upon cultural and socio-economic outlook. And therefore, according to the wayward professor’s rambling manifesto, the needs and values of the controlling technological-industrial societies – those that are ultimately capable of genetic manipulation – will, in turn, be implicitly imposed upon the world’s genome at large. And he may have a point. After all, keep in mind that we already know of a genetic marker that renders its bearer the sad, statistical fate of being nine times more likely to be arrested and convicted of a violent act. It’s called the male chromosome. Yet we don’t see front-page, “Bell Curve”-like tomes detailing this particular drain upon society.

Perhaps movements will eventually rise up, like those of the `60s, in which people choose to opt out of the whole manipulative, genetic system entirely. Will the “Geno-Green” party lead us back to the land of random genetics, urging its followers to simply “let it be?” Or consider the opposite extreme – genetic performance artists? Comedian Albert Brooks’ real name is actually Albert Einstein. While his parents could at worst be accused of having a cruel sense of humor, what of those that might elect to have their son actually look like Albert Einstein? Or a daughter fashioned after the Mona Lisa?

While most people remain mostly opposed to gene manipulation save to correct obvious infirmities, keep in mind that, thirty years ago, heart transplants were often characterized as a blasphemy against God. The issues will become ever more explosive. Most researchers and governments remain open to the possibility of “somatic” gene manipulation – that which affects already differentiated cells, and which would not be passed on to future offspring. But there is considerable opposition to “germ-line” therapy – whose changes would be propagated through generations to come.

Meanwhile, there is great debate as to who even owns genetic information. A case has already arisen where a man learned after cancer surgery that scientists had actually patented his cell line. A portion of his genes, it seems, produced medically valuable anti-cancer proteins – and stood to make the researchers billions of dollars. He later sued (amazingly, unsuccessfully) for a share of their profits. As a result of such cases, a New York performance artist now offers an official form to “register oneself as an original human being.” Although the paperwork is in no way binding, and is meant as artistic statement, it clearly anticipates the legal storms ahead.

And these are only the issues that confront us in the human realm. Already, transgenic gene manipulation is taking place between species – from soybeans containing anti-freeze genes taken from arctic fish, to mice with human immune systems. Will we soon be able to buy bouquets of roses containing the Luciferase gene, the glowing blue-green substance that fireflies use to light up the night? Perhaps. The technology is certainly there. And the next step might then be the creation of entirely new beings – a la Blade Runner. Who then decides what specific traits, what behavior patterns, and how much human-common DNA actually makes one “human”?

Ironically, as we strive to make computers more and more human, we are simultaneously discovering the machine within ourselves. And the worlds of computers and genetics are rapidly coalescing – at an ever-accelerating pace. The Human Genome Project already utilizes massive computational and database technologies. And a firm in Silicon Valley is now perfecting the technology of “bio-chips.” Looking surprisingly like etched computer chips, these silicon wafers contain dense grids of molecular “tweezers” which bind to pre-determined DNA sequences. With these, researchers can now effectively “speed-read” hundreds of genes at a time.

And the revolution is only just beginning. Geneticists recently announced preliminary success in producing small, man-made human chromosomes. This offers the promise of gene therapy at a level of sophistication previously unheard of using today’s hit-and-miss techniques of viral delivery. But even so, we’re still in the genetic Stone Age. We can only speculate what lies ahead. One thing is for certain – while the computer revolution will undoubtedly continue at its present break-neck pace, the twenty-first century will be the era of Biology – an age not so much of circuitry and hardware, but of molecules and wetware.

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Steven Meloan is a former biologist and software developer. His journalistic and fiction work has been seen in Wired, Rolling Stone, and Playboy.