Last night my mother and I attended a panel discussion on The Human Genome Project at the University of Washington. The above picture is of two panel participants, Leena Peltonen of the Welcome Trust Sanger Institute and Bill Gates III of Microsoft and Bob Waterston, Chair of Genome Sciences at UW, who was sort of in charge of the event in some way and who is responsible for not letting the moderator ask the multiple questions I submitted on whether or not Mr. Gates would be willing to help me pay off Janie’s graduate school loans and other requests for large sums of cash-money.
The majority of the two hours were spent answering questions submitted by the audience in attendance and those watching from the InterWeb. The central discussion was on the consequences of mapping the human genome and how, in the future, it will be reasonably cheap and what will that mean for society? Will we have politicians disclosing their genetic makeup for pundits to scrutinize? The idea is already surfacing that this information could be used to discriminate. Yes, coming soon, genetic discrimination. We discriminate for everything else, why not genetic makeup? Which leads to legal concerns. How long until a defendant will plead not guilty by reason of bad genetic makeup? I couldn’t help it, I have the genetic marker for theft!
Someone in the audience suggested a dating service that uses the human genome to match people up. Match.com will be rivaled by GeneticMatch.com. Pretty soon we’ll have Patty Stanger from Millionaire Matchmaker urging her small team of pimps to crunch that genetic code and find that millionaire a beautiful, successful woman who does not carry the marker for self-esteem! (I’m right here, Patty!)
Bill Gates hasn’t had his genome mapped, though he said he’d be willing to do it and disclose it if, first, cures were found for the top 20 infectious diseases. We’ll see about that, Mr. Gates. In fact, only one person on the panel had and that’s because he’s a member of a study group which has yet to reveal its data. He did mention, however, that the makeup of that group included women and people of African American descent, which the current data does not include. In fact, the majority of the current data is made of almost entirely from men of Northern European descent. Seriously, science, let’s start thinking that maybe not everyone is a white male. I thought you were smarter than that.
There was small discussion of the genetic engineering/designer baby notion and how easy it might one day be to pluck pieces out of a cell mass and add some other more desirable pieces. Will we abandon natural procreation to create the perfect child? Will we become some sad society where everyone is a test tube baby that adheres to whatever standards we arbitrarily set? There was general concensus among those on the panel that this would not be the case, that sex would pretty much remain the preferable road to conception except, you know, for the gays who will have the prettiest designer babies on earth. Leen Peltonin suggested that fear of using this science to create the perfect child could prove to be a very bad idea. Mutations are not necessarily a bad thing, they are a part of evolution, what moves life forward. Who is to say that in 1000 years it wouldn’t be beneficial to have some of the mutations we would want to eradicate? Maybe the you and me of 3008 will need three nipples.