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Humans, Flies and Worms

Notes on the completion of the Human Genome Project

By David Baltimore The New York Times

Humans no longer have genetic secrets. The federal government and the private company Celera Genomics (Celera), which is engaged in decoding the genes in two separate projects, private and public, are to announce today at the White House the completion of the first draft of the human genome: the map of the overall genetic structure of the human species.

The genome is actually a generic representation of our genes - each of us carries small variations of the basic sequence. We already know several hundred thousand of the major variations that occur, but our individual genetic capacities are discoverable only at a high price, although this price is likely to decrease rapidly.

How will the revealed genome change our lives? First it confirms an obvious, but still controversial fact: our genes look a lot like those of fruit flies. If there is still any doubt - and unfortunately there is in some circles - the genome shows that we are all products of those humble beginnings. This should be - but will not be - the end of creationist theories that deny the theory of evolution.

The genome also tells us a lot about the complexity of the organism. The differences between us and the flies are not expressed in the number of genes encoded in our DNA. Although much work remains to determine the total number of human genes - an estimate of 50 thousand seems reasonable, and it is not so far from the estimated number of genes of a fly (14 thousand), or of a worm (18 thousand).
However, we are much more complex than that. How can a few more genes create such great complexity? Part of the answer is that flies and worms have lots of genes that do specific things for them. The genes that encode the basic functions of life - in humans, flies, and even bacteria - number only a few hundred to a few thousand.

The remaining genes perfect the specific characteristics of specific organisms. A single gene can be responsible for a great complexity of functions. Genes are just information encoded along a long coil of chemical DNA; They can do nothing by themselves. The genes code the structures of the proteins, which are the working mechanism of living things. They allow us to walk and talk and think. One gene can code for different proteins. To perform different activities, the proteins can be different in terms of their quantity, or the way they are combined. The number of proteins, not genes, determines complexity.

The genome will also shorten the working time of scientists. The information from the federal program has been sent to the Internet, and has already proven to be very useful. Science and medicine will no longer have to wonder how many genes are related to this or that process.
PhD students will not have to spend long months trying to isolate genes. They will simply turn to the Internet. A completely new possibility has opened up before us: to ask scientific questions not about a single gene, but about an entire genome. It will be possible to develop drugs for each protein to correct its function.

However, we should not think that from now on biology will not be more than a process of tying up ends. The DNA sequence tells us only a little about the functions of the genes or their role in the overall economy of the body. At best, the sequence allows us to tap into Gan's abilities, but only experiments will verify or disprove the correctness of the difficulties.

And finally, the race to complete the genome has taught us a lot about conducting scientific research. The competition, which sometimes wore an unpleasant face - between the public, government project, and the Celera company project - received extensive media coverage. We must recognize that the government plan was organized in a centralized manner, and therefore it was necessary to agree on a single strategy, despite the scientific importance of considering many strategies. So Celera's ability to compete with the federal program helped advance the entire effort more flexibly and efficiently. The fact that the two projects plan to coordinate their efforts points to a healthier relationship.

The very celebration of the completion of the Human Genome Project is a rare event in the history of science: an event whose historical importance is recognized not only in retrospect, but at the time of its occurrence. It presents the scientific community at its best - for its ability to collaborate and use the newest technologies.

Although this is an important moment - we still have a lot of work ahead of us. It will take decades to fully understand the magnificent building of DNA that was established in four billion years of evolution and preserved in the nucleus of every cell in the body of every organism on earth.

{Appeared in Haaretz newspaper, 26/6/2000{

* The author, chairman of the California Institute of Technology, received the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1975

The knowledge site was until the end of 2000 part of the IOL portal from the Haaretz group

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