Essays on Science and SocietyGenome-Sequencing Anniversary

A Living Constitution

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Science  18 Feb 2011:
Vol. 331, Issue 6019, pp. 872
DOI: 10.1126/science.1203467
CREDIT: K. SUTLIFF/SCIENCE AND WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

A decade is not nearly enough time to measure the impact of a scientific revolution. We should not presume to judge how human lives will change as a result of the publication of the human genome sequence in Science in February 2001. It is clear, though, that simply weighing past predictions against present realities misses the mark. It is too soon to tell whether cures for genetic disease were oversold or fears of producing a genetic underclass were much overblown. What matters is that we found a powerful new way to represent human identity, and the moral implications of that re-representation are just beginning to unfold.

Like the Constitution of the United States, the human genome turned out to be a sparse document, containing fewer genes than expected. This means that, as with the Constitution, the genome's meanings will evolve over time, as scientists, lawmakers, and publics make sense of the fixed elements of the sequence in relation to the variables and unknowns in the surrounding environment. Some outlines of new thinking are already emerging, as importantly in law and ethics as in biomedicine. Unsettled questions about who can patent genes, how to regulate unconsented uses of genetic information, when to allow familial searching of data banks, who owns immortal cell lines, and what constitutes impermissible mixing of human and nonhuman genetic material all point to deeper uncertainty about the moral status of the human genome.

These questions are contentious, but in disrupting our taken-for-granted assumptions, they force us to rethink the nature and consequences of being human. In retrospect, this point leaps out as most significant: 2001 marked the issuance of a founding document, a biological living constitution that remakes how we, as individuals and species, interpret our obligations to each other and to other entities on Earth.

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