The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 31.0°F | A Few Clouds and Breezy

A Future with Biotechnology

Guest Column Kris Schnee

The Human Genome Project, likely to be completed within a decade, will both offer us great benefits and force us to answer difficult questions. While giving us healthier and longer lives, it will make us reconsider the definition of the word "human."

Whether or not Celera, the company trying to sequence much of human DNA, succeeds with its experimental gene-reading techniques, soon it will be possible to put the 3-billion-letter code on an ordinary compact disc. Couples could decide whether to adopt by reading a complete report of the possibilities of potential children having serious genetic disorders. Individuals will be able to learn their own risk for, say, heart disease, and adjust their lifestyles accordingly. Knowledge of the genome will also help to find new medical treatments, enabling people to live longer, healthier lives.

As the biotechnology industry grows, generating huge profits, the demand for talented scientists and engineers will balloon. Pressure will be applied on America to improve its education system - we will need to reform elementary schools (with national standards and testing?), and a college education may become as much a "right" as elementary school is now.

The life expectancy of society will continue to increase, making the old more powerful than ever before in politics; Social Security and euthanasia will become hot topics. (Perhaps we will also see more "classic" TV, and new sports for the elderly.)

Who will have access to the new technology? The existence of genetic testing will add to the push for a socialized health care system - some will argue that unequal access will create a nation of genetic "haves" and "have-nots." Rightly worried that "Rodhamizing" medical care could drain the nation's pockets, government and industry will want to invest heavily in research to make genetic screening and other processes affordable. Partly out of fear of government control, the companies themselves may also choose to be charitable on their own.

Much ethical conflict will arise over this new technology. The world's religious leaders will probably be active players, with everyone from the Pope - John Paul II's successor - to neighborhood priests speaking out, mostly denouncing genetics as "playing God." (Will the people who oppose "playing God" still give their children vaccines and antibiotics to save their lives, or books to make them intelligent?) The American people will be too tempted by genetic engineering to leave it alone; rather than use it and feel guilty, they will seek new ideas and perspectives on ethics, partly to justify what they want to do.

Every aspect of genetics will come under fire. For instance, human embryos are useful in genetic research. There is currently a ban on using them in America for publicly funded science, even on using ones which would otherwise be discarded as "trash" by abortion clinics. Abortion will be brought into the spotlight of politics, as we wonder if embryo research is ever acceptable, even to save lives. Some people will try to radically restrict genetic engineering but will fail; the technology is too tempting. Instead we will have carefully written laws protecting the privacy of the individual's DNA from snooping by employers or insurance companies. Other laws will bar discrimination against people who, by birth, have genetic effects or were genetically engineered.

DNA will invade pop culture as well. We will see all sorts of entertainment media about genetic engineering, and two-thirds of it will be raving nonsense. Movie heroes will use "genes" to turn into robots or leap tall buildings. Some authors will swamp us with gloomy stories, starring MIT scientists portrayed as irresponsible. But a popularization of genetic technology won't be all bad - with improved education, and a push by the biotech firms themselves, there could also be shows which get the facts right and excite the imagination. The greatest benefit of genetic engineering may be that people will be optimistic about the future again.

Kris Schnee is a member of the class of 2002.