Cracking The Code of Life

There have been moments in history when extraordinary men unveiled secrets that would change our lives. Sir Isaac Newton explained gravity to us, Edward Jenner discovered the miracle of vaccination, Charles Darwin published 'The Origin of The Species and Albert Einstein revealed the General Theory of Relativity.

All these things were turning points in our history as was the splitting of the atom and landing on the moon. Perhaps all of these momentous events pale into insignificance though, when you look closely at the one thing that could possibly eclipse even the invention of the wheel - mapping the human genome.

What, you may ask is the big deal here? The biggest thing you can possibly imagine in terms of humanity's future, because the secret of life itself may be revealed - in time - and who wouldn't like to live long enough to reap the benefits? Extending lifespan is just one possibility but there are many more.

Everyone is aware these days of DNA and the incredible powers of detection that it has given to law enforcement. Don't imagine though that deoxyribonucleic acid is in any way a simple thing. It's a hereditary substance - a long thread-like molecule made up of two intertwined strands.

These strands carry the genes that pass on hereditary characteristics like red hair or green eyes but they also make us unique. Though you are 99.8% similar to the person next to you, be they male or female, it is that 0.2% genetic difference that makes all the difference.

That may not seem like a lot when talk percentages but consider that DNA is in every cell of your body. With over 100 trillion cells to an average person you could lay them end to end and they'd reach the 93million miles to the sun and back six times over. So long is the sequence code of the DNA that it would fill 200 phone books of 500 pages each and take twenty years to read out loud.

Every cell carries 46 chromosomes - 23 from the mother and 23 from the father - and each of these carries a long strand of DNA, on which the indescribably long and complex coded instructions for the making of the human body are carried. When you consider that up to 100,000 genes could be involved - each with its own unique code - you begin to realize how awesome the unraveling of these codes must be.

That code is spelled out by four chemicals - given the letters A, C, T & G - and is three billion letters long. Scientists from all over the world - USA, UK, Japan, France, China and Germany - were all involved in this project, which has mapped nearly 100% of the human genome now and sequenced over 80%. What this could mean for the future is quite staggering.

It is expected that the work will finally be completed by 2003 and the data then available will change the face of medicine forever. Doctors will be able to screen babies for the likelihood of future diseases because of their genes and tailor medical treatment to each one in a way more specific than was ever possible before. Inherited disorders may well become a thing of the past as the technology to repair faulty genes gets perfected. It is quite conceivable that a time will come when parents will be able to select the characteristics they want a child to have and the outlook for extending the average lifespan looks very good indeed.

There are those who feel that this all seems a little too close to those images of Dr Frankenstein and his monster creation. Perhaps they have a point because every piece of this puzzle - which is the blueprint of the human body - can be downloaded from the Internet. Does that mean that it could be subject to misuse?

Of course it does but nothing is that simple in this whole business. This worldwide research has to date cost over $3billion so it would take rich and powerful men indeed to afford the equipment needed to properly make use of it.

If babies were, in effect, bar coded at birth so that future diagnosis could be done with a simple scanner a la 'Star Trek' is there not the possibility that insurance companies would start to discriminate on the basis of bar code information? There is also the worrying trend of gene companies copyrighting certain genes. Will blue eyes only be available to the highest bidders in some strange future?

Hardly. No great scientific advance ever comes without risk as Evidenced by nuclear power and genetically modified foods but such dangers are far outweighed by the endless possible advantages that the genome project will bring forward. Each and every one of us would love to visit a doctor who could correctly assess our problem in seconds. Those dreams could now become reality in our lifetimes.

Some of the greatest minds of the 20th century regard this breakthrough in our understanding of the genome with awe. Richard Dawkins - professor of Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University - that incredible wheelchair-bound genius who makes time and space more understandable to all of us is quoted as saying

"Along with Bach's music, Shakespeare's sonnets and the Apollo Space Program, the Human Genome project is one of those achievements of the human spirit that makes me proud to be human."

The greatest mystery of life to man has always, throughout his long history, been life itself. Not sentience and the workings of the human mind, which are mysteries that we may in truth never fully understand, but the simple fact of existence as a living entity.

Only 50 years have passed since the structure of DNA was discovered, yet today we stand on the very brink of what may prove to be the greatest prize we'll ever find - cracking the code of life itself. What an incredible future awaits.


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