GE fantasy shattered by Human Genome Project
"In everyday language the talk is about a gene for this and a gene for that. We are now finding that that is rarely so. The number of genes that work in that way can almost be counted on your fingers, because we are just not hard-wired in that way."
Craig Venter, Celera Genomics, 12 February 2001
Although few may have yet noticed, the primitive scientific model on which the foundations of genetic engineering have been constructed was dealt a quiet but earth-shattering blow this week with the formal publication of the base pair sequence of the human genome. That at least must be the ultimate conclusion to be drawn from what has now been revealed.
Although the human genome project is nominally specific to our own genetic code, the "surprising" nature of its results have much broader implications relating to science's understanding of the genome functioning of all species. The project graphically demonstrates that organism biochemistry is driven as much (if not considerably more so) by the multi-dimensional relationships between the thousands of genes involved (which are in turn symbiotically linked to the functioning of the organism as a whole in its environment), as it is by the previously assumed linear influence of individual genes which has largely dominated scientific thinking up until now.
This realisation is one which has been anticipated and highlighted by critics of genetic engineering from the outset, but which (for reasons best known to itself) large portions of the biotechnology community have chosen to ignore. It represents an implicit acknowledgement of why genetic engineering is inherently risk laden, and it is a dramatic illustration of the old common sense adage that "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing".
Current methods of modern biotechnology predominately rely on an out-of-date model of the way genes influence biological processes within an organism. Although the model espouses some limited embellishments beyond this, it has been largely a simplistic 'one-for-one' component-based model of biochemical processes.
Even though this model now has no option but to surrender to the concept of the multi-dimensional genome - where relationships rather than components predominate - there is little corrective action that genetic engineers can now take to limit the inherently large risk quotient associated with the use of recombinant DNA that has been exposed by this new understanding. This is simply because almost nothing is currently known about such relationships, despite the fact that they are ultimately responsible for the way in which all proteins in an organism (250,000 in the case of a human) are generated.
Developing a proper understanding of those relationships (not only within individual organisms but beyond them in the overall context of their environment) is now the principal challenge facing the biotechnology community. It is an awesome, and in practical terms, a hugely expensive one. To quote from an earlier press interview with Craig Venter, the American scientist who lays claim to having been the first to produce the 'complete' sequence of the human genome: "We know shit about biology." [*]
Ultimately what the human genome project is beginning to demonstrate is that the 'core' objections to genetic engineering voiced by its critics are proving to reflect a more complete scientific understanding of genetics than that of the genetic engineers themselves. Meanwhile the genetic engineers continue to operate on a predominately linear model of genetic function and influence which is now demonstrably obsolete. This linear fantasy was, of course, always an extremely naive concept even at the time of its conception.
Perhaps what is most encouraging, however, is that journalists from quarters which otherwise have previously been willing to sing the praises of genetic engineering are now apparently ready to report on the new understanding that is emerging from the discovery of the multi-dimensional nature of the genome and its relationship with the environment. Of course the implications of this understanding are not yet fully articulated - but clearly that is now something to be looked forward to in the not-too-distant future.
Essentially a new more holistic understanding of the nature of the genome is starting to form, and under whose penetrating light the primitive interventions of recombinant DNA techniques can only shrivel and die.
In this respect the publication of the human genetic sequence does indeed represent a huge breakthrough in scientific understanding - and it may have come just in the nick of time. The only real "surprise" in all of this is that the scientists and journalists charged with informing the public on such things should themselves be surprised to have found only what to many was the obvious in the first place. It is clearly very difficult to see the biological 'wood for the trees' when you spend too much time peering down a microscope or listening only to those who do so.
Particular credit therefore goes to Craig Venter for the forthright way in which he has been willing to stand back from the mind-numbing detail of the genomic sequence that he himself has helped reveal, and to simultaneously disabuse both the scientific and journalistic communities of the misplaced understanding that has been derived from their own conceptual myopias.
In the end the whole is more than the sum of the parts; it is the totality of the relationships. At its most complete, organism health is exclusively the state of being 'whole'.
In effect, if not by intention, genetic engineering through the use of recombinant DNA is principally concerned with the disintegration of the whole into a collection of unrelated parts. It is the product of an age of ignorance and reductionist superstition which, as from this week, now belongs firmly to the primitive past.
As reported in today's Times (UK newspaper), a new consciousness is emerging as the unveiling of the human genome brings biological knowledge not to an end, but to a new beginning.
Mark Griffiths, 12 February 2001
Web site of Natural Law Party Wessex (UK): www.btinternet.com/~nlpwessex
[*] "Decoding the genome" Ralph Brave, Jan. 9, 2001
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