The Genome Networks

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
13 November, 2018
Editorial: 255
Fecha de publicación original: 20 febrero, 2001

There is none so blind as them that would not see

Ever since the end of the 80s, people have been predicting that the XXI century will be the Biotechnological Age (see Jeremy Rifkin, amongst others) and the Information Age too (as Manuel Castells explains in his monumental trilogy and we on this electronic magazine are witness to as well). In case anybody doubted this, just take a look at the stir caused by media hype surrounding the announcement last week (again, and this is the third time) that the human genome map is “almost” finished and all the subsequent controversy that this provokes in both the private and public sector regarding the commercialistaion of our 30,000 genes.

Genes and networks blend together in a juggling act where the one cannot be explained without the other. While all the fuss made by the two big science magazines, Science and Nature, is going on, we should try to read between the lines of all their grandiloquent claims and bring those developments that link biotechnology and the Internet which will directly affect us, down to earth.

Biotechnology is already a discipline that has become the driving force of change in electronics, the science of computation, biocomputers and biostatistics, the field of new materials and the telematic network environment itself and, it goes without saying, biology. The Net, for its part, has not only become the fundamental tool through which scientists on three continents have been linked in an unprecedented collaborative effort. It has also given us a certain freedom of expression and information which will lead us to demanding (or it will be demanded of us) a way of dealing with our bodies that will surpass anything we can possibly imagine now.

Part of this dilemma is connected to, as so many other things it has been our lot to live with, the extraordinary speed at which information is turned over. Gene sequencing is a prime example of this. The description of the structure of the double helix by Francis Crick and James Watson in 1953, won them the Nobel prize. Then, at the beginning of the 60s Khorama, Nirenberg and Holley demonstrated how genetic elements in the cell’s nucleus controlled protein synthesis, for which they were awarded the Swedish prize as well. Now, joint efforts in both the private and public sector, in particular the US company Celera and the Human Genome Organisation (HUGO) subsidised by the US and Great Britain, has brought this research right into the open and shown us the first map of our genes.

All this in less than 50 years, despite all predictions. In the 80s I went to no less than 10 international conferences on the subject of the human genome, all of them attended by more Nobel prizewinners per square metre than journalists at a press conference with Kim Basinger. At the time, the books said that we had more than 100,000 genes. Each time the mapping of these genes was brought up the task was likened to the building of a Gothic cathedral: it would take centuries they said. The first flash of impatience came from Francis Crick who in Valencia, at the end of the 80s, claimed that a complete map of the human genome would be ready before the year 2005. His own colleagues –amongst them four Nobel prizewinners, one of them his friend James Watson– looked at him as if to say “There goes Francis again…..”. But, they were all wrong. And so was he. The task was complete five years earlier and instead of the 100,000 predicted it turns out it is just 30,000 genes that make up each and every one of us.

The catalyst in this unprecedented race was not at that meeting, nor did anyone know him at that time. His name was Craig Venter and he wiped out all predictions with a mixture of scientific acumen, robotic power, potent networks and unwavering willpower. His spell at the US Institutes of National Health caused an enormous stir when he wanted to patent 2,000 genes at one fell swoop although he didn’t even know that he had “hunted them down” yet. All he had were the chemical tags that pointed to their existence. His colleagues rose up against him and he, like Lucifer turned out of the Garden of Eden, constructed his own infernal kingdom. First there was The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR, which sounds like tiger). Then came Celera. His successes and the way he carefully guarded his advances set the alarm bells ringing. As he was protected by one of the big corporations in the pharmaceutical sector, the rest, for fear of being left out of what was coming to be viewed as one of the most lucrative businesses of the millenium, threw themselves into supporting the universities to speed up the public programme HUGO (Human Genome Organisation)

Although many have expressed their disappointment at those 30,000 genes that make up our genome (“Barely double the number of that of a fruit fly”, some scientists lamented ), an attitude typical of an age that values figures above content, the truth is that this “measly” number of genes only goes to prove the extraordinary complexity of gene functions. Just a small number of them can make up an organism as complex as a human being. And this is exactly where the next big challenge lies, a challenge which goes well beyond the borders of science itself. On the one hand, there is the need to decode this second level of relationships between genes, to work out what their roles are. On the other, we need to go one step further towards defining legal frameworks for tempering the extraordinary powers of prediction that medicine (as well as states and corporations) will acquire over the years to come.

Gene sequencing and the determination of their functions open the doors wide to so-called prognosis medicine. Instead of diagnosing an illness when it manifests itself, we will be able to raise the alarm about the more or less certain possibility of it arising in the future. This has already been occurring with prenatal genomic analysis (when cell division begins in a fertilised ovule) and embryos that, in some cases, have led to attempts to apply some kind of gene therapy when “malfunctioning” genes were detected. The gene for Huntington’s Corea for example, which manifests itself in adults and is fatal. When Charles Cantor’s team discovered the gene, the Canadian government wanted to impose compulsory embryo analysis. This measure led to protest from mothers and fathers who did not want to face making the decision to abort on the basis of the disease possibly manifesting itself when their children reached the age of forty.

Now the human genome map will make it possible to increase the number of catalogued illnesses, known or as yet unknown, related to genetic malformations. From a predisposition for cancer if one comes into contact with certain substances, to whether it is a good idea for certain couples to procreate given their respective genetic makeups. Over the last few years, this aspect of prognostic medicine has barely been exploited due to lack of knowledge about gene functions. Nevertheless, for almost a decade, insurance companies in Great Britain have been demanding genetic analysis of clients who want insurance policies, policies that banks demand for the granting of mortgages.

In the US, six years ago 60% of the world’s 500 most famous companies on the Fortune list, the most powerful in the world, admitted demanding genetic information from their workers. They are still not too sure what they are going to do with this information, but they know that shortly it will turn into a gold mine. As science unravels the relationships between the environment and the way our genes behave, archives can be consulted to find out what has happened with significant statistical samples of workers. And on this basis establish policies on “employable” or “problematic” genomes.

Is this medicine? We will almost certainly have to stretch our imaginations to include all those spheres of our daily lives that will be susceptible to being dependent, in one way or another, on the “quality” and functioning of the particular genome of each individual. And then, and only then, will we realise just how elastic the idea of “public health” can become. For instance, will the State be able to prevent certain couples getting together because they represent a “public health” risk by carrying genes that when combined increase the risk of transmitting certain diseases? Just how thoroughly will the genetic history of an individual be examined in order to establish these risks, and what will the safeguards be? These questions already formed part of the human genome debate 15 years ago.

Perhaps the day is not so far away when we will have to (compulsorily?) include more than details such as the usual “I like cats and jazz, particularly Mishy and Wynton Marsalis” on our web pages. We will include a part of the information on our genetic code in case of a “crisis”. What crisis? That’s a good question. At the congresses and seminars on the human genome which I have attended over the last ten years, everyone from representatives of the scientific world to different managers of the Human Genome Project, have publicly assured us that they would never do exactly what they were doing just a few months later. I suspect that we have not yet reached a sufficient degree of imagination to be able to say anything more or less intelligent about what the consequences of the fusion between physical and biological networks might be. The only thing we know for sure is that we are heading in that direction, towards that grand merger, and much, much faster than we think we are.

Translation: Bridget King