Mapping the Human Genome

Genetics is a very young science. The theory of evolution was not forwarded until the late 1850s. In 1866 the Austrian monk Gregor Mendel had begun to attempt to pry open the secret of creation when he published the results of his controlled pollination of the garden pea, but his discoveries were ignored for the rest of the century, and Galton never learned of them. Even the discovery of the mechanism of fertilization as a union of the nuclei of male and female sex cells was not made until 1875; 1888 saw the discovery of certain deeply stained bodies in cell nuclei, which were christened “chromosomes,” and in 1909 the word “gene” came to be applied to the Mendelian factors of heredity. The first in vitro fertilization (rabbit and also monkey) was not achieved until 1934, and as for the double helical structure of DNA, its discovery dates back only to 1953. This is all so recent that although early eugenicists had set their goals and methods they were largely ignorant of the mechanisms involved.

The mapping of the human genome is still in an early stage. The amount we don’t know vastly dwarfs what we do know. There appear to be approximately three billion bases, or chemical letters, making up the nucleotide sequences that form 20,000 to 25,000 genes which code directly for proteins. Just how genes and the proteins they produce interact is still poorly understood.

But protein-coding genes comprise only 2% of the human genome. The functions of other DNA sequences are still largely a mystery. We do know that some of them contain switches that turn genes on and off, and we have learned that at the ends of the chromosomes there are telomeres, whose shortening appears to be related to the aging process, and nonfunctional genomic parasites, whose only function in our bodies seems to be to replicate themselves. An estimated 40- 48% consists of repeat sequences. Even after sequencing the genome, we will still have to determine how these data relate to expression. The sequences are only the parts list to a grand machine, the outlines of which we are only beginning to trace.

Scholarly opinion is rapidly growing more cognizant of the role of genes in human society. In 1998, University of Massachusetts political scientist Diane Paul wrote that just fourteen years earlier, in 1984, she had labeled as “hereditarian” or “biological determinist” the view that differences in mentality and temperament were substantially influenced by genes – employing these terms as though their meanings were unproblematic. That usage today would surely be contested. For the view implicitly disparaged by these labels is once again widely accepted by scientists and the public alike.

The bottom line is that with every day we gain greater knowledge and that in the not all that distant future we will be able to predict, with a high degree of certainty, the genetic load that we are passing on to future generations.




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