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Fall 2004
ACT II
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Illustration of Scientists with Key to the Genetic Code Unraveling the sequence of the human genome was only the beginning. Now we have to figure out how to fit this new knowledge within the context of our daily lives

by Edward R.B. McCabe and Linda L. McCabe
Illustration by Arthur E. Giron

The sequence of the human genome — all of the hereditary material in our cells — was completed in April 2003. An observer of the celebrations might have thought that genetics had come to its concluding act and all the rest would be denouement. Perhaps history will show that we have completed the first act, but we are certainly no farther along, if for no other reason than that the science, if left to itself, must by its very nature remain incomplete. Science is only of value when it is used, and that requires it to be placed in the broader social context.

The 13-year effort to sequence the 3.2 billion base pairs of DNA in the human genome was indeed a scientific tour de force. But the genetics community and the media were guilty of “genohype,” to use a term coined by Neil A. Holtzman of Johns Hopkins University. The true challenge of genetics and genomics will be to understand the potential impact of the science on us as individuals and as members of social groups.

We hear much about the “genomic revolution” and how the ability to read the “blueprint of life” will lead to the prevention and amelioration of disease. But if we really argue that genomic, or DNA-based, medicine will have immediate and broad impact, then it might be said that such claims of immediate benefit are also premature, pretentious and preposterous.

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