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Conclusion: Challenges and Opportunities in the Genomics Age

Better Living Through Biochemistry

The Eighth Annual Millennium Evening at the White House in October of 1999 -- Informatics Meets Genomics. Together with President and Mrs. Clinton, Dr. Vinton Cerf and Dr. Eric Lander led a discussion on the advantages and challenges posed by the increasingly powerful developments of information technology and genetic research, and knowledge about our own natural information system.

A link to video of the event is found at bottom of this page.

Depending on whom one asks, the possible futures discussed above are either just around the corner, the tip of the iceberg, or a pipe dream. Many agree that we are on the precipice of the genetics age with advancements of many kinds trickling out at an ever-increasing pace. Products will be formulated to appeal to certain genotypes -- a line of chocolates one of which will likely conform to your genetically influenced tastes. Perfumes may be purchased to attract that certain someone with that certain olfactory allele. Many have suggested that cancer may not be a health problem at all by the end of the next century. The length of a human life may reach toward the two-century mark, with advancing age causing little to no decline in mental ability.

One can almost see the black and white television ads proclaiming "better living through biochemistry" or the images of happy schoolchildren huddling under desks in preparation for an atomic attack. How can we avoid the naiveté that affected our social responses to technology in the past? How do we do this while not minimizing the great promise that the genetic revolution holds for humanity and while continuing to build a more perfect democracy?

Many have called for dialogue on the ethical issues that arise as we unravel the meaning of our own biological existence. Typical dialogue and privacy laws will not be sufficient to ward off the dangers in this new world of decentralized research and development. These technologies do not require the resources of whole nation-states to acquire or develop. And the deliberation calculated to end in policymaking by a nation-state will fall short.

The opportunities for huge profits exist, and the investment of private capital into genetics research is far outstripping government spending. The centers of research that push out the boundaries of our self-knowledge are likely to become increasingly private and dispersed around the globe, coming under no single sovereign authority. Collective moral decisionmaking will become more and more difficult. Without international cooperation it will be impossible.

The Global Threat

The opportunities for destruction also abound. In the near future, if not already, a small lab with a few individuals may be sufficient to genetically modify bacteria or viruses in ways calculated to produce massive loss of life. The possibilities of such efforts are sobering. Never before has so profound a technology been within the reach of so many. Today teenage hackers can disable Internet sites doing millions of dollars worth of economic damage. We must prepare today for the bio-hackers of tomorrow, as the boundaries between silicon and living cells break down. The intricate webs of the Earth's ecosystems are unprepared for such assaults, and we must be ready to protect them as well.

Nothing short of a totalitarian state would be able to monitor and control all moral decisions or nefarious activities. Our democratic society must find some other way to protect the public and preserve our core values -- whether by aggressively pursuing research to create new ways to detect and prevent disease or by forging industry consensus where possible and legislating to protect the public where necessary. And also by remaining engaged on the international stage and vigorously supporting efforts to establish international ethical norms and monitoring and enforcement regimes, or by some other combination of tools, democratic societies will find a way to flourish and make the most of genetic technologies.

Today's technological culture is marked by a libertarian streak. Individuals want to be secure in their private communications, free to communicate whatever information they wish at any time in any way; corporations want to be free to innovate, to deliver their own visions of our tomorrows. We must be wary however that the white noise of individual choices does not result in a future that none of us would choose.

A Future We Choose

The first thing to realize is that the future is upon us. Setting aside the somewhat futuristic gene-card scenario for a moment, there are very real choices to be made today that will influence how we adapt to these technologies in the near-term. Current issues include treatment of human subjects in genetic experiments, the use of genetically engineered crops as our predominant source of food, the ethical issues raised by cloning and other technologies relating to human procreation, and many others. These and other very real and present issues demand dialogue aimed at producing practical solutions.

These solutions must be forward looking, however. It may not be enough to craft solutions that meet "current" needs. It should be clear enough now that predicting the future of these technologies is a tricky business, one that is rife with the potential to over-forecast and under-forecast. The scenarios presented in this report probably suffer from a little of both.

It might be instructive to consider the case of the automobile. If we knew at the time the automobile was introduced what we know today, what should we have done? Was it clear to anyone at the time the scale of the environmental damage the car would create -- millions of miles of roads, choking pollution, traffic jams, millions of acres of parking lots, ecological damage in previously roadless areas -- or the scale of its benefits -- more than one car for each family, cross-country, personalized trips, the freedom to live in isolated areas just outside of town -- or the dramatic social influence it would have, such as sub urbanization and all of its consequences?

In many ways the automobile was not a new kind of technology, just an advance over the horse and buggy or train. But this difference of degree, if it is that, made all the difference. If genetic technologies are, as some have suggested, not different in kind from other medical advances, they may at least be different enough.

Next section: Slide Show

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Rosetta Stone: Front Page
Plaintiffs in the Post-Genome Era
Grocery Store Genetics
International Toxicity
Conclusion: Challenges and Opportunities in the Genomics Age
Slide Show
External Links
Brave New World
Wired Magazine: Why the future doesn't need us by Bill Joy, April 2000
Wired Magazine: Rants and Raves: July 2000 Responses to Bill Joy
Science Friday: Perils of Technology Discussion with Joy, Kurzweil, Turkle. RealAudio available.
Wired News: Valley to Bill Joy: 'Zzzzzz'
Wired News: Protesting Gene-Altered Animals 6/26/00

Genetics 101

Glossary of Genetic Terms, with audio and video, NHGRI
Glossary and Acronyms, Environmental Genome Project
Genetics: The Basics, DOE
DNA from the Beginning, animated primer on the basics, Cold Spring Harbors Laboratory
Genome Gateway, a comprehensive genomics web resource.
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