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The Human Genome Project

12 January 2005

The Human Genome Project and the unreliability of GE

Op ed by Ian Ewen-Street MP

The Human Genome Project was supposed to have been a showcase for the Genetic Engineering profession, but instead it scored a truly spectacular 'own goal'.

The Project, the complete mapping of the human genetic profile, aimed to identify the individual genes that allow us to pass on our approximately 100,000 heritable traits, such as eye colour, height, susceptibility to disease etc, to succeeding generations. The hope was that this would lead to the elimination of genetic disorders, but it could also bring about 'designer babies' and the mingling of genes between humans and other species.

However, far from proving that each gene and its effect could be isolated and that GE is therefore indeed very precise, the Project conclusively proved the very opposite. Instead of the expected 100,000 genes, there are only 30,000, meaning that each gene does not correspond to just one trait, but to multiple traits.

It is now acknowledged (by the Project's official US Government website) that outcomes are caused by a combination of the gene sequence and the multiple proteins present in each cell. But the vast number of potential combinations means that the studies of this relationship (called proteomics) "will be the focus of much research for decades to come".

This means that not only is it more difficult to isolate a desired outcome from the large number of gene-protein combinations, but it is virtually impossible to know what additional undesired outcomes are also present. It is these unknown additional effects that inescapably spring from genetic manipulation that leads to the critical uncertainty over GE.

What we lay people can take from this is: 1. Moving a gene from one location to another does not give a specific outcome, but multiple outcomes that cannot yet be predicted. 2. If we change one gene, it leads to a cascade of downstream changes. 3. Given the use of words such as "may" and "appear" and "believe" throughout scientific literature, it is clear that academic biologists simply do not know how genes and proteins work together to orchestrate the chemistry of life.

This effect has already been seen by researchers who transplant a gene from one species into another in the expectation that a certain outcome will occur, only to discover that it either does not happen or is so dogged by side-effects as to be almost useless.

While genetic engineering may have some potential future in medicine and as a research tool, its unpredictability and high risk and the utter rejection of GE food by consumers worldwide mean that New Zealand would be well advised to maintain its GE-Free status.


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