This publication, the latest in a series designed to provide students and others with a front-row seat at the frontiers of biomedical research, coincides with one of the most important advances in the history of science. Early in 2001, two teams of researchers published the complete genetic readout of humans. They listed all of the chemical letters that spell out the instruction manual for our species. Observers immediately hailed the publication of the human genome for both its value to scientists and its potential to speed new medical applications.
Yet the impact of the Human Genome Project on humanity cannot be described in practical terms alone. As this publication, The Genes We Share, makes clear, one of the most wondrous revelations of this new field of genomics is that we humans have a genetic plan that is remarkably similar to that of other species. We are much less unique than we once believed.
Such a revelation reaches beyond science to our concept of who we are. Our sense of identity may soon be changed in the same way that the Renaissance discovery about the Earth revolving around the Sun transformed mankind's view of its place in the Universe. Gradually, we humans came to understand that, instead of being at the very center of existence, we live on a planet much like other planets, derived from the same burst of creation. So it is with these new genetic discoveries. We are just beginning to realize that many of the genes that guide our lives are largely the same as those in other creatures, even such simple organisms as worms or yeast. Our biological software is more complex, but constructed from a common genetic kit. Like our planet, we are part of a larger whole, ensemble players working from a shared evolutionary script.
Researchers are now routinely logging onto the Internet to check whether a genetic sequence has been discovered in other organisms and, if so, what is known about it. Beyond the research laboratory, physicians are using genetic tests to determine whether patients are at greater risk for getting certain cancers or other diseases. New "biochips" will improve both diagnosis and treatment for patients whose illnesses appear identical but differ at the molecular level. Many other innovations are under development, or will be soon.
Often, these advances are accompanied by difficult social and ethical questions. Should parents test to see whether their unborn child has a genetic defect, and how should they respond if it does? Should an insurance company, an employer, or anyone besides a physician and patient be allowed to see the person's genetic profile?
The new genetic information that is changing our world results directly from our society's patient investment in basic science. Researchers have devoted lifetimes to studying the genes of yeast and flies. Their work may have seemed pointless or obscure to nonscientists, but now everyone can see the payoff. The genetic knowledge that scientists developed so painstakingly about small organisms turns out to be directly applicable to humans.
Basic biomedical science has taken off like a rocket over the past half-century and now, as it converges with equally remarkable advances in computer science, it is providing us with both profound insights about life and the promise of improved medical care. Our capacity to see the world with scientific eyesto ask questions and evaluate evidence, to make hypotheses and test conclusionssets us apart from the yeast, worms, flies, and mice whose genes we share. We have the wisdom to understand that the discoveries described in this publication are not a challenge to our humanity but, instead, an opportunity to celebrate our place on Earth with a deeper appreciation of who we really are.
Thomas R. Cech, Ph.D.
Howard Hughes Medical Institute
Top of page
Thomas R. Cech
Photo: Kay Chernush