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Human Genome Mapped Opens New Medical Frontier / Ethical Paradox

February 13, 2001

This week, two rival teams are publishing their first interpretations of the human genome, the set of DNA-encodedinstructions that specify much about what makes up a person.

The most surprising discovery is that humans have far fewer human genes than anyone thought probably a mere 30,000 orso only a third more than those found in the roundworm.

This preliminary mapping of human genetic code brings scientists closer to finding treatments for genetically linkeddiseases such as Alzheimer’s, certain cancers, diabetes, cardiovascular disease.

But there is also a dark side. Prenatal genetic tests may create a new high tech eugenics by tempting parents to abortfetuses that show a predisposition for certain less desirable physical or mental traits.

Researchers are already combing the world, harvesting genetic material from subjects who neither understand theimplications, nor profit from the results of the use of their genes. Insurance companies and employers are alreadygathering and using genetic information.

Currently, only 25 states bar employers from using genetic information for workplace decisions. In the first federalcase of its kind, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued Burlington Northern Railroad. The company requiredgenetic testing for employees who filed claims for a carpal tunnel syndrome and allegedly threatened to fire anemployee who refused to take a blood test. Burlington Northern announced yesterday that it was dropping the testingrequirement.


  • Daniel Kevles, Professor of Humanities in the Science, Ethics and Society department at the CaliforniaInstitute of Technology. He is author of ??In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity, andco-editor of ??The Code of Codes: Scientific and Social Issues in the Human Genome Project.
  • Jeremy Rifkin, author of ??The Biotech Century: Harnessing the Gene and Remaking the World, andPresident of the Foundation for Economic Trends.
  • Evelyn Fox Keller, Professor of History and the Philosophy of Science at the Massachusetts Institute ofTechnology and author of ??The Century of the Gene.