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Recently, Harvard University had a panel discussing the legacy of the Human Genome Project. Started in 1990, and with scientists from six countries and initial funding of $3 billion, the project published the full sequence of about 21,000 genes that are the basic instructions of building a human. Needless to say, the implications of better understanding human biology at a genetic level are enormous. For example, with such information, we can better fight or prevent disease. And the costs to decode genomes is dropping dramatically - "[t]echnology today can do in five minutes a decoding task that would have taken a year to complete a decade ago." Needless to say, these are very exciting times in this field.

But perhaps caution should temper our excitement as the enormous implications of understanding our biology come with ethical questions that have not been answered and might never be answered. For example, it's only a matter of time when we will be able to manipulate or engineer genes to alter exactly the traits we want. Should we? Similar to the movie Gattaca, which proclaims that there is no gene for the human spirit, should we use science to create "perfect" human beings? How could genetic engineering negatively intervene in our evolution and affect future generations? Also, in a world where genetic engineering is possible but expensive and, therefore, only those with the proper financial resources can benefit, will we see the ultimate class war - the "perfect" vs. the "imperfect?" The science is getting to the point where these are no longer theoretical questions. If you could, would you want to be genetically engineered? What about your children?


Enhancement engineering is widely regarded as both scientifically and ethically problematic. From a scientific standpoint, it is unlikely that we will soon be able to enhance normally functioning genes without risking grave side effects. For example:

  • Enhancing an individual's height beyond his or her naturally ordained level may inadvertently cause stress to other parts of the organism, such as the heart.

  • Moreover, many of the traits that might be targeted for enhancement (e.g., intelligence or memory) are genetically multifactorial, and have a strong environmental component. Thus, alteration of single genes would not likely achieve the desired outcome.

  • These problems are magnified, and additional problems arise, when we move from somatic cell enhancements to germline enhancements.

In addition to the problem of disseminating unforeseen consequences across generations, we are faced with questions about whether future generations would share their predecessors' views about the desirability of the traits that have been bequeathed to them. Future generations are not likely to be ungrateful if we deprive them of genes associated with horrible diseases, but they may well feel limited by choices we have made regarding their physical, cognitive, or emotional traits. In short, there is a danger that social-historical trends and biases could place genetic limitations on future generations...

Once we pinpoint the genetic basis for diseases and other phenotypic traits, what parameters should be set for the acquisition and use of genetic information? The key issue to be considered here is the use of genetic screening. Screening for diseases with the due consent of a patient or a legal proxy is generally viewed as ethically permissible, but even this form of screening can create some significant ethical challenges. Knowledge that one is or may be affected by a serious disease can create difficult situations for both patients and their families. Consider:

  • If a test is positive, what options, medical or otherwise, will be available to ameliorate the condition?

  • Will the patient's relatives be informed that they too may be affected by the ailment?

The Human Genome Project: A Scientific and Ethical Overview


Original posting by Braincrave Second Life staff on Mar 4, 2011 at http://www.braincrave.com/viewblog.php?id=491

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