- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 15, 2001

This week, scientists released their first detailed analysis of the human genome. While the findings will be debated and studied for decades to come, the truths it points to will last even longer.

One surprise was that humans have surprisingly few genes only about 30,000, not many more than worms or fruit flies. Some may use this physical equivalence to argue for man's moral equivalence with other animals, but such an argument is specious. Man's place in creation is determined neither by the simplicity of the elements he is made from, nor by the complexity with which they are assembled. For that matter, scientists discovered long ago that the amount of genetic material that an organism contains has little bearing on its sophistication.

Moreover, the ability of humans to accomplish the mapping of their own genome stands unequaled and unparalleled by any other species. Dr. Francis Collins, the head of the Human Genome Project called it "The most significant organized scientific effort that humankind has ever mounted, bar none."

One of the remarkable chapters was written by Craig Venter, the founder of Celera Genomics. He was scoffed at when he announced that he could complete the map of the human genome quicker and more cheaply than the publicly funded project headed by Dr. Francis Collins. The well-publicized race that resulted, reminiscent of cross-continental race between the builders of the first transcontinental railway, took years off the planned completion date of the project, ultimately accelerating the arrival of new and novel cures to old and deadly diseases.

Not that new plagues may not await, for the lifesaving possibilities stemming from Project Genome's many applications must be tempered with respect for its potential for abuse. Already, ethical land mines abound, ranging from concerns over genetic privacy to the building of designer babies.

The findings of Project Genome may also shed new light on the nature vs. nurture controversy, over whether there is free will or merely genetic predisposition. Yet no matter how sophisticated genetic analyses become, it is doubtful whether any will reveal the genes encoding a conscience or a soul. Science has its limitations.

Ultimately, Project Genome stands as a tribute to the power of individuals to use the freedom of thought, the power of information exchange and the tools of technology to produce a work from which all can benefit.

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