Genes are the basic building blocks of humans, but what are they made of?
That's the question geneticists are trying to answer with the
Human Genome Project.
Begun in 1990 and scheduled to end in
2003, the project strives to decode the human blueprint. This is a lofty goal,
considering there are about 100,000 genes in the human genome. As
scientists eagerly await the results, they are
grappling with ethical issues.
Project leaders say the results will bring benefits, including the detection of genetic predisposition to a
disease, the study of evolution through genetic characteristics and the
identification of criminal suspects based on genetic evidence.
DNA is the "Rosetta Stone of life and death, health and disease," according
the Human Genome Project site. DNA, deoxyribonucleic acid, is the genetic
code that determines a person's traits and characteristics. While the DNA of
every person is remarkably similar, small variations in DNA sequences are
what make each person unique. A gene is made up of a group of DNA strands. Each
gene determines a characteristic, such as eye color or height. Genes compose
the 24 human chromosomes. The Human Genome Project has completely
deciphered five chromosomes.
As each new gene sequence is decoded, a new ethical issue is raised. Many
arguments are made about the confidentiality and privacy of genetic
material. If genetic testing becomes widespread, who will have access to
this information? Some critics fear that this information will have
devastating social effects. A person with a predisposed risk of heart
disease might find it hard to find a job or get health insurance.
Parents may be able to
choose the physical characteristics of children before they are born.
The effects of such genetic modification on the human gene pool are unknown.
Even the research itself is raising ethical questions. Who owns the
property rights to gene sequences? It is possible for a researcher to patent
a gene? The
Human Genome Project's Genetics and Patents
page explains the pros and cons of this situation.
For people familiar with genetics research, there are several online
databases of genome maps. The
National Human Genome Research Institute
has "good raw data," said Dr. Patricia A.
DeLeon, professor of human genetics at the University of Delaware. "They
have a database for the genes that has been corrected." The Institute also
Genomic and Genetic Resources.
Other databases include the official
Genome Database at Johns Hopkins University and the
GenBank at the National
Center for Biotechnology Information.