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Yolanda Devere

The mapping of the genes
in the human body
by the HGP
has caused great excitement
in the scientific world.
It will be a
major step forward
or mankind. But it also brings
difficult moral problems

The scientific discoveries made in the 1990s are beginning to help us understand how we are made. The breakthrough came in 1953 when the structure of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) was explained. DNA is the code by which the cells in our body know what to become before we are born. Since then, scientists have been trying to understand how DNA controls our lives and passes on genetic diseases to our children. DNA, itself, is made up of four similar chemicals whose order, or sequence, needs to be understood if medicine is to benefit.

The results of this research are all around us. Now we have DNA ‘fingerprinting’ which is used
to solve crimes, and new understanding of some cancers. We also have methods to detect genetic disease. The Human Genome Project (HGP) is about to announce the order or sequence for the whole set of genes that make up our DNA – the human genome.

The Human Genome Project was started in 1990. This international project had a very ambitious goal: to define the human genome by 2005. Scientists were confident that new discoveries would allow them to achieve this goal. It meant recording not just the 80,000 human genes in us, but also the 3 billion or more similar chemicals (chemical bases) that make them up – in the right order or sequence.

At the start of the project, a research student who correctly identified a few thousand chemical bases earned a doctorate. Today a modern genetic sequencing machine no bigger than a desktop computer reads 500,000 chemical bases in one day. The equipment has been made smaller, automatic and much cheaper. In fact
, the rate of new discoveries has been so great that the Human Genome Project is 5 years ahead of schedule.

Big business has been quick to take an interest. Some of the genes that cause certain types of cancers have even been patented. Francis Collins, the head of the American Human Genome Project laboratories, is alarmed: ‘The human genome ought to be the common inheritance of
all humankind. We are worried that the sequence might get tied up in patents, licences and secrecy agreements.’

However it is a long way from knowing which genes cause a disease to knowing how to cure that disease. Genes rarely have a single effect that can be identified easily. Often many genes work together to make something happen, and over 80% of our genes seem to have no useful function at all.

The mapping of the genetic sequence by the Human Genome Project marks the beginning of a whole new age for biology and
will raise new problems that ordinary people will have to face.


The stress of knowing that you may develop cancer, for example, might be too much. Your marriage may break up. You may become very depressed. And what if the diagnosis says that you are 25% more likely to develop cancer? Does this help you to plan your life? Or is it just a worry that you can really do nothing about?


What if parents were told that their child would develop a genetic disease early on in its life? Can laws be made that can stop people terminating their baby because its parents do not want the responsibility of looking after a terminally ill child?


Insurance companies have always tried to make sure that those people who will need treatment pay more than those who will remain healthy. Many smokers pay more insurance as a result. Will the insurance for the people who will develop serious genetic diseases and those that will get cancer become so expensive that they can no longer afford it? Or will the insurance companies simply refuse to insure such people?


Employers want workers who can work hard for long periods, and stay healthy. What if your DNA shows that you are about to become sick for a long time? You might need a lot of time off work if you develop the disease. Will your boss decide that it is better to fire you now rather than wait for you to become ill?


Today USA, seen by many as the guardian of democracy, restricts the immigration  of people with HIV and AIDS. Is it a big step for a country to prevent immigration of someone who has genes that cause a disease and which can be passed on to their children? They may argue that their country cannot afford to care for the person and their children when they become ill. You may even be prevented from taking holidays in other countries if you carry ‘bad’ genes.


One of the most exciting parts of the work on the human genome is the promise of finding cures for diseases like diabetes and Alzheimer’s. It is the dream of many scientists and doctors to discover the treatment to cure these diseases. But the technique that cures diabetes could be used to improve someone's looks. For example someone may like to have a permanent tan, or bigger muscles. However, most commentators agree that such treatments will be expensive. They say that if someone chooses to spend their money this way, then we cannot stop them. It is no different to cosmetic surgery today.

Source: New English Digest


major: of greater importance (sumamente importante)
mankind: humanity (humanidad)
breakthrough: important discovery (descubrimiento)
passes on: transfers (transfiere, trasmite)
diseases: illnesses (enfermedades)
is made up of: consists in (consiste en, está integrado por)
to solve: to resolve, to figure out (
para resolver)
goal: objective, end (meta, objetivo)
to achieve
: to accomplish (lograr, alcanzar)
at the start of
: at the beginning of (al inicio de)
earned: obtained (alcanzaba, obtenía)
in fact: in reality, the truth is (en realidad)
alarmed: alerted (alarmado)
all humankind: all mankind, all of the inhabitants of the earth (toda la humanidad)
tied up: involved, engaged (involucrado)
secrecy agreements: private statements (acuerdos privados)
will raise: will bring up (planteará)
to face: to deal with (enfrentar, asumir)

break up: terminate, separate (romperse, destruirse)
you are 25% more likely to...: your probability of... is over 25% (tienes una probabilidad superior al 25% de...)
parents were told: someone informed parents (a los padres se les informara)
terminating their baby: trying to expel their baby (de abortar su bebé)
of looking after: of taking care of (de cuidar)
can no longer afford it: do not have the financial means for it (ya no puedan afrontar los gastos)
stay healthy: keep in good health (mantenerse sanos)
off work: with a long sick leave (de licencia por enfrmedad)
to fire: to dismiss, to sack (despedir)
passed on: transferred (transferidos)
to care for: to provide treatment for (hacerse cargo de)
prevented from taking: not able to take (imposibilitado de tomar)
permanent tan: a permanent browning or suntan of the skin (bronceado permanente)