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A gift to humanity

The editorial of "Haaretz" the day after the announcement of the end of the human genome project

the land

The events marking the great scientific achievement - the completion of the human genome project - illustrated the difficulty of clarifying to the public the exact meaning of the achievement.
In the White House and Downing 10 the heads of state celebrated, and rightly so, what was described as the dawning of a new dawn; The eradication of all diseases, new medicines, the disappearance of genetic defects and the postponement of old age. The scientists were embarrassed by the need to explain the difference between DNA and protein, between a gene and a mutation, and between mapping and "sequencing".

The moon landing, an achievement many compared to the completion of reading the genome, was much more tangible. The spaceships landed, the tin flags were raised and the footprints in the sand were visible in every living room. But what will be done when the achievement lies entirely in what happens inside a living cell, a thousand of which fit into the head of a pin, and in the mysteries of even tinier lumps of genetic material called chromosomes. How will things be explained, when the way in which the genes determine all our features is a biochemical process far more complicated than the operation of the largest supercomputer we have ever built?

The rich powers and the biotechnological super companies have given humanity a wonderful gift like no other for the millennium. The information contained in the three billion bases in BD-NA will serve as an extensive basis for computer analyses. The knowledge generated will be used to understand the structures of the tens of thousands of northern proteins in the genome, and these in turn will be used, again through supercomputing, to design thousands of new drugs.
Prenatal diagnosis will prevent or cure birth defects. And very important - the information is open to all. The "harvest of the genome" can also be carried out by small countries, including Israel. Countries that have advanced capabilities in the field of medicine, biotechnology and computers will of course have the opportunity to use their advantage. In this, Israel is close to the top of the list, and its capacity is greatly improved due to the development made, with the support of the Ministry of Science, in the field of genome and bioinformatics infrastructures (combination of biology and computing).

Israel's success in the future depends to a large extent on a thorough understanding of the processes that will emerge upon completion of the genome project. Without massive investment from the government and business entrepreneurs, we may be left behind. Like other developed countries, Israel will also have to take into account changes in the field of legislation and ethics, so that certain concerns regarding the risks of the genome will not come true. There is no reason to overestimate these risks.

And most of all, the achievement shows the need to support research. Reading the enigma of the genome was an "invited" technological achievement. But deciphering it in the coming decades will require the imagination, creativity and breadth of vision that exist mainly in universities and research institutes. Both the government and the business community can reach out to researchers and praise the fruits of the research. The fierce competition between the "Celera" company and the research bodies funded by public money sensed the call of the genome. It is appropriate to derive the appropriate lessons from the joint achievement.
{Appeared in Haaretz newspaper, 28/6/2000{

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