So, We've Got the Genome Map. Now, What to Do With It?

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For an eternity now, it seems, people have counted on various and sundry external forces to bring us closer together as a species. Love, tolerance, peace, understanding, et cetera, et cetera. And now, after years of all that new-agey stuff, it turns out that all we needed was a bunch of research scientists and some pipettes.

Monday, the first description of the human genome was published, revealing a previously unimagined wealth of genetic information — including the fact that surface variances in humans (including skin color, hair color and eye color) hinge upon such infinitesimal genetic differences as to be almost imperceptible. In other words, we're all made from nearly identical building blocks.

A bad day indeed for racists and xenophobes, as France's minister of research, Roger-Gerard Schwartzenberg, triumphantly declared at a Monday press conference in Paris. He was celebrating the participation of French scientists in the Human Genome Project; other consortiums hailed from the U.S., the United Kingdom, Germany, Canada and Japan. P> At Celera Genomics, Craig Venter's private company in Rockville, Md., and at the Washington, D.C., headquarters of the publicly funded Human Genome Project, release of the groundbreaking information yielded joy tempered by a teeth-baring spirit of competition. Since last June, when scientists unveiled a preliminary sketch of the human genome, both teams have been working feverishly to publish their outlines of the genetic "map" that defines human beings — and which may shed light on deadly illnesses. After months of bickering, they finally decided to release their papers at the same time.

It was worth the wait: Beyond the expected developments, there were also a few surprises in the dueling teams' new studies — which are scheduled to be published later this week, appropriately enough, in dueling science journals ("Nature" and "Science," respectively). It turns out that men's genes, for example, are twice as likely as women's to develop inheritable mutations — which means that men are both a greater force of change in human evolution and more likely to pass disease on to their children.

It's also come to light that humans have far fewer genes than was previously thought. In fact, in spite of our sense of evolutionary preeminence and structural complexity, the human body only has twice as many genes as a common fruit fly. Not exactly awe-inspiring, is it?

What is pretty spectacular, on the other hand, are the seemingly boundless medical possibilities inherent in this discovery. If a cancer specialist can use this map to accelerate her search for the genetic anomaly that leads to breast cancer, we might find a cure — or a means of prevention. And if the root of a chronic illness lies buried in our DNA, the genome map could eventually lead us to a usable therapy. Of course, despite all this tantalizing promise, treatments, not to mention cures, are years, possibly decades away. Scientists involved in the mapping stress that while the latest descriptions are critical to an eventual understanding of our genetic makeup, we are still far from anything resembling a comprehensive grasp of human DNA.

That's just fine with some outside the scientific community, who fear the downside of genetic mapping may overshadow its benefits. If we're determined to unravel the mystery of genetic coding, aren't we opening a Pandora's box of ethical conundrums? If we know which genes lead to eye color, will we choose our children's appearance? Will insurance companies deny coverage to those with a genetic flaw? If we're capable of eliminating the genetic malfunctions that cause cystic fibrosis, for example, but only the richest among us can afford the procedure, are we paving the way for genetic bigotry, or worse, for a "master race" mentality?