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Human Genome

It is time to reexamine moral and political principles

Civil society has been the winner in the tussle between private companies and governments

The announcement of the sequencing of the human genome, on June 26, was no novelty from the scientific standpoint. The managers of the two human genome-sequencing projects – Celera and the Human Genome Project –reached na agreement, somewhat unconvincingly, to publish their results simultaneously. The question of whether the results of the two groups will be completely public and free was not raised, at least in public.

There is no doubt that Celera, a private company, is ahead in the Human Genome Project, financed by the US government and international institutions. There are two reasons for this. Celera has the results of the Human Genome Project while the opposite is not true. Furthermore, Celera has a more powerful information technology infrastructure for grouping the sequences. And, finally, it was Celera that imposed its strategy of speeding up the human genome sequencing on the US government and the international institutions.

But, in this contest between the private company, government and institutions involved, the real winner is civil society, made up of the community of “public” scientists who exerted pressure from the moral, political, and economic standpoint – through manipulation of the stock exchange rate – to prevent more than 3 billion years of human evolution being monopolized by some biotechnology company, a typical product of the dominant contemporary culture, motivated solely by short-term profit

One of the factors leading to this situation, in which knowledge crucial to the advance of biological science was almost monopolized, was the patent law, both in the United States and Europe, that allows the patenting, not just of genetically modified live species, but also single genes.

But what happens now, after the announcement of the sequencing of the human genome? Many other important tasks still have to be finished, among which is studying the genome of the great parasites that multiply in poor populations and which are of no great interest to pharmaceutical companies; the analysis of the mouse genome and the study of its mutants; individual variations in the human genome; and the genome of cultivated plants and their pathogens, a field, by the way, which FAPESP has established a niche that it should actively exploit.

The essential thing is not to deceive the public. The sequencing of the human genome has taken ten years. The present stage of deciphering the genetic code has taken two years. Another ten years will be needed before this new knowledge can be translated into new medications or cures, which will undoubtedly be expensive and the privilege of the rich. The rest of humankind will still suffer from malnutrition and various infections for decades to come.

Only a review of the moral and political principles that led to the scientific knowledge to be acquired and used in some regions of the planets, to the benefit of few, can speed up the appearance of an equal, supportive, and fraternal society. For the rest, we have to wait for knowledge of the human genome and its scant variations between ethnic groups to deal a deathblow to certain racial arguments.

André Goffeau is a researcher at the Institut Curie, in Paris, coordinator of the yeast sequencing project and a member of the Xylella Genome Project’s Steering Committee