"Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted"
Martin Luther King, Jr., May 17, 1956
One topic that seems to raise visceral reactions from scientists to everyday people is the notion of science beng in possession of the ability to understand and manipulate genes. Since humans are deemed fallible creatures, how will knowledge so germane to the crux of our very existence, escape the ravishes of ego, greed, domination, power, control, politics, and corruption.
In approaching any topic, I always find it salubrious to begin with a basic question. Questions help us frame a discussion, or the issues surrounding a discussion. Questions also help students to focus upon that which is to be presented. In this instance let us begin with: What is a genome? It is the total set of genes carried by an individual or cell (1). All parents pass on genes to their offspring. This is what is commonly referred to as heredity. Various characteristics are passed from generation to generation (i.e. height, hair color, blood type, and a multiplicity of diseases). Genes are located in every cell, on tiny threadlike structures called chromosomes. Each chromosome contains a single molecule of a chemical substance called DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid. One of these molecules may contain as many as one thousand genes (2). Human beings have forty-six chromosomes. The Genome Project, sponsored by the United States Department of Energy, seeks to determine what each and every gene in the body does.
The Human Genome Initiative is a worldwide research effort that has the goal of analyzing the structure of human DNA and determining the location of all human genes. In parallel with this effort, the DNA of a set of model organisms will be studied to provide the comparative information necessary for understanding the functioning of the human genome. The information generated by the human genome project is expected to be the source book for biomedical science in the 21st century. It will have a profound impact on and expedite progress in a variety of biological fields, including those such as developmental biology and neurobiology, where scientists are just beginning to understand the underlying molecular mechanisms. The analysis and interpretation of the information will occupy scientists for many years to come. Thus, the maximal benefit of the human genome project will only be achieved if it is surrounded by research efforts that are focused on understanding and taking advantage of the human genetic information (3).
The area we have now labeled as genetics, didn't become a major area of study until around 1865.
The Gene Wars
by Robert Cook-Deegan, sets forth the following history on Genetics: Greg Mendel, with his experiments on peas, noted certain characteristics, "factors" as he called them, were passed on from each parent. In 1877, chromosomes were first observed inside cells. Walter S. Sutton (a medical student at the time) teamed up with Edmund B. Wilson (at Columbia University) proposed in 1902 that chromosomes carried Mendel's hereditary factors. Later, Nettie M. Stevens and Wilson looked at the factors on X and Y and tied it to gender. In 1906, an English scientist, William Bateson broke ground on the study of inheritance "genetics." Thanks to independent "coinage" Mendel's hereditary factors became "genetics." Consequently, by 1910, the field had a name, and specific elementary objects to study. Robert Cook-Deegan further states that Mendel's work, though published in 1866, didn't get its just recognition for almost thirty-five years because its relevance to the dominant biological controversy of its day-evolution-was not immediately apparent (4).
Cook-Deegan states that in 1900, three scientists from Holland, Germany, and Austria again revisited Mendel's work. As a direct result, Mendelian genetics was off and running. The science community would be locked into an often-contentious debate on genetic mechanisms to explain variations among generations. Some of the intensity of the debate waned in the 1920's and 1930's thanks to theoretical population genetics. This field gave statistical analysis of variations with the study of inheritance; to explain how small genetic changes "mutations" could work with natural selection to explain evolution (5).
As the field of genetics continued to expand, Thomas Hunt Morgan (California Institute of Technology) became the forerunner in understanding the role of chromosomes play in disseminating traits in fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) and other species. His work created the "paradigms for genetics in other organisms." The result of Thomas Hunt Morgan's work caused others to look at clusters of genetic traits, or characters, often inherited together. This is known as genetic linkage (6).