Tag Archives: James Watson

Science and Ethics

I am a proponent of science, as the best method for uncovering facts about the world. In its purest form, science is morally neutral; it’s about finding out how things work. The relative easy in which we live our lives in the developed world is largely due to the scientific effort. In spite of its major contributions to civilization, there can be a dark side to the application of science. The power associated with knowledge and technology makes the miss-use of science a real concern. History has shown us that science has at times been a destructive tool.

The 20th century is perhaps the most devastating and deadly period in human history; more than 100 million people have died in wars and conflicts. The scale of human suffering is unfathomable. Clearly, the blame lies in human beings and the propensity to inflict violence on their own kind. Human history is a tale marked by wars, and the borders of the world map have mostly been drawn by conflicts. The role of science in 20th century warfare is difficult to quantify; however, the invention of weapons of mass destruction made the devastation much worse.

Modern science has giving men unprecedented power; that power was unleashed for good and ill. The two world wars immediately come to mind as a turning point in human history. Never before had conflict reached such a scale. The First World War was a major cause for the Second World War that followed, as it set the stage for Nazi Germany. Perhaps both wars could have been avoided had the world leaders realized the horrific potential of their new weaponry. By the early 20th century the potential to do harm had never been greater.

Growing Up Too Fast

Scientific discoveries came about so fast (in comparison to the evolution of civilizations) that the world had not yet developed the foresight to predict its consequences. Was humankind equipped to responsibly handle such power? Perhaps we were a little naive at the turn of the 20th century. People were asking: How could science make life better. The idea that science could lead to unintended and destructive consequences was probably an after-thought.

Some notable examples of science gone astray are:

  • Trying to capture the essence of heredity allowed for the misguided eugenics programs (made infamous by the Nazis, but also implemented to lesser degrees elsewhere).
  • The large number of chemicals introduced to the public and environment was followed by many unforeseen negative effects.
  • Medical science also has its share of outliers, such as the thalidomide babies born with birth defects (from 1957 – 1961).
  • No one could have foreseen that the industrial revolution would eventually contribute to climate change.
  • Probing the atom would unexpectedly lead to the atomic bomb.

On the flip side, understanding the fundamental nature of the atom has led to modern information technology. This is one of the best examples of how difficult, or perhaps impossible, it is to predict how a scientific discovery will affect the future. It starts with uncovering how nature behaves under certain conditions; usually it gets expanded on by other scientists. The applications of technologies and industries follow, and that is where the dark side of science can creep in.

Has the power and speed of introducing technologies outpaced our predictive and ethical judgement? Looking back at the last century, like a child forced to grow up too fast, humankind has not always used good judgement. In some ways, it is paradoxical that in our haste to improve life both positive and negative results ensued. Today, having learned from history, there is more awareness of the potential downside of scientific applications. And that’s a good thing. A benefit in one area could trigger a negative effect in a non-target area. And short-term gains have to be balanced with considerations for longer term risks.

Genetics and Ethical Concerns

In terms of science and ethics, genetic engineering is a modern-day example of the complex questions that can arise with new discoveries. Today, with the hindsight of history, a cautious approach is usually the norm with cutting edge science. Just because we can do something it doesn’t mean we should, but it also doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. For instance, a new genetic editing technology developed in 2012, called CRISPR, is showing great promise of essentially cutting and pasting DNA. CRISPR can cut and remove a sequence of DNA, or cut and replace a sequence of DNA. However, it is too early to tell if the process will be a smooth as it appears. There may be unpredictable complications ahead.

New advancements in genetics introduce a number of ethical questions: one type allows for eliminating or editing undesirable genes, such as a gene responsible for a deadly disease. Another type is genome enhancement; this would be identifying desirable traits, such as intelligence or physical strength and engineering those traits at the genetic level. Of the two ethical questions, genome enhancement seems more ethically murky. The attempt to alleviate pain and suffering is a noble cause, while improving a species by a subjective rating system is another matter. There is also the value of diversity in a gene pool to consider (a natural protection against any unforeseen threat).

Another important distinction is the difference between somatic gene editing and germline gene editing. Somatic cells are most of the cells in the body, like skin and blood cells. Somatic edits do not get passed on to offspring. Germline edits involve sperm, egg or embryos. With germline editing, changes made to DNA are passed on to offspring, thus affecting future generations. There is a major difference between the two.

Genetic engineering could improve health and well-being; however, it could become subjective or lead to unintended consequences. Who should perform genetic alterations, and when would it be an acceptable practice? Some people believe we should take a cautious approach and suspend the use of some technologies until we know more. While others think we should embrace the new technologies.

We are still in the early stages of genetic technology, however, I can foresee a day when genome sequencing will be part of a normal heath plan. A person would carry their genome with them in the form of an identification card (a more personal social insurance number). A doctor’s appointment would begin with the question: “Can I see your genome?” This hypothetical scenario may be good for some, but for others, the knowledge that they are susceptible to die of a heart attack at age 50 is undesirable. I suppose it would be a good thing if measures could be taken to avoid a potential problem. However, if your future is read through your genome and it says you are prone to be inflicted with an incurable disease, it would be comparable to a death sentence.

The Genie is Out of the Bottle

There is no going back and pretending that we should not interfere with nature. We are already too far implicated. In response to the often used phrase, ‘We shouldn’t play God’, co-discoverer of the DNA structure James Watson replied: “If we don’t play God, who will.” Beyond finding solutions for problems we have already created, we also have to determine when to hold back or when to implement existing knowledge. My hope is that history has been a valuable teacher, and that humans will view progress with a more skeptical eye.

Scientific thinking is trending towards holistic concepts. We know too much to arbitrarily divide the world into neat little models. Everything affects everything else, or at least everything affects something else. Our awareness of this simple fact makes implementing new technology more complicated. Adverse side effects could come in ways that are totally unpredictable. The assertion: ‘What could possibly go wrong,’ sounds a little over-confident.

Knowledge is powerful but preferable to ignorance. Scientific knowledge can be viewed in the same light. Humans have not always used science in a positive way, but that does not point to an inherent flaw in the scientific process. All knowledge is ethically neutral, and only when it is applied can ethical questions arise. To continuously grow our knowledge base is a worthwhile endeavor, as the pros far outweigh the cons. Ever since the scientific revolution, we (in the developed world) have enjoyed progressively better lives. Nevertheless, with knowledge there is power, and with power lies responsibility.

References: How CRISPR lets us edit our DNA | Jennifer Doudna, TED Published on Nov. 12, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TdBAHexVYzc&t=643s

DNA Episode 4 of 5 Curing Cancer PBS Documentary, Pam Begley Published on July 28, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PRzb0DqTo0M&t=5152s




Sequencing the Human Genome

On June 26, 2000, U.S. President Bill Clinton, geneticists Francis Collins and Craig Venter, announced the completion of the “first survey” of the entire human genome. The announcement was made in front of a large audience at the White House, which signified the importance of the milestone. Actually, the sequencing of the human genome was not yet complete; the presentation had been arranged as a compromise between two competing parties. On one side, the government-funded Human Genome Project, and on the other side a private company, Celera Genomics.

Collins was the head of the Human Genome Project, Venter represented Celera Genomics. The truce had been arranged to end a race for a complete sequence of the human genome. Over a number of years both groups had made considerable progress and where getting close to the finish line. The joint statement would ensure that both sides would get credit upon completion; all the letters of human DNA would soon be spelled out. Francis Collins ended his talk with the following statement: “I am happy that today, the only race that we are talking about is the human race.”

The Controversy

The Human Genome Project was launched in 1990. The task at hand was enormous. The human DNA code consisted of over 3 billion letters. It was estimated that it would take 50,000 person years of labor, at a cost of $3 billion. Collins compared the project’s scale to going to the moon or splitting the atom. As it turned out, two competing groups would go after the genome. They would differ in both technique and purpose.

Craig Venter

Celera Genomics was using a method of sequencing called shotgun. Criag Venter believed he could speed up the process by ignoring large parts of the genome located between genes. These sections encode for regulating genes, such as on and off switches, and some parts have no known function. Venter would essentially break up the genome, sequence the genes and then try to put the pieces back together.

Perhaps another motivation for the shotgun approach was to map individual genes in the hope to patent genes. Venter informed Collins his intention to seek patents for 300 genes that would serve as targets for drugs to treat diseases. In addition, the question whether the whole genome could be patented was uncharted territory.

Francis Collins

The Human Genome Project’s founding leader was James Watson, one of the co-discoverers of the structure of DNA (the double helix in 1953). Watson had the credentials to get government funding for the project; however, he was outspoken and sometimes that got him in trouble. Watson was replaced by Francis Collins in 1993, which was more cautious and diplomatic, traits that would be needed to steer the project to completion. Collins’ group did not believe that individual genes or the genome should be up for patents. The genome belonged to everyone and should not be privatized for profit. Also, there was concern that Venter’s Shotgun method would reveal an incomplete genome, one that could not be put back together.

Scattered throughout the genome are DNA fingerprints. These are repeating patterns of code that are unique to each individual (except for identical twins), hence the term DNA fingerprints. The Human Genome Project would use DNA fingerprints to break up the task of sequencing. The DNA fingerprints stood out from the random code along the genome; this provided a natural break in which the genome could be divided up, and later put back together. The genome was divided into segments and sent to 16 labs around the world. Once each section was sequenced the genome could be placed back together

The controversy and the race for the genome increased the pace of the sequencing. In the end, both sides would publish papers on a sequenced human genome. On February 15, 2001, The Human Genome Project published their results in the scientific journal, Nature. The next day Celera published in the journal, Science.

The sequenced genome is a template of a normal genome, which could be used to find abnormal genes responsible for diseases. In theory, the template could be used to compare and locate any mutant genes. This could lead to treating and curing diseases (at the genetic level) that have previously been incurable. A map of the human genome could also prevent diseases; genes that predispose individuals to attracting diseases in the future could be identified years in advance.

Out Comes the Genome

The science behind sequencing the human genome has come from a century of discoveries, starting in the late 1800s. At first, genetics was an abstract concept describing hereditary information. Although it was known that hereditary information was passed through generations, the mechanisms were unknown. Once DNA and genes were discovered, the first step to sequencing the human genome was to start with simple organisms, such as, viruses, flies and worms. Then the more complicated human genome could be dealt with. Today, a complete instruction book to make a human being has been identified; however, a complete understanding of the book is still a long way off.

In a way, the human genome is simple in its design, yet incredibly complex in length of code and number of functions. The fundamental unit of the genome is DNA, coded information like letters of the alphabet. Certain sections make up genes; these are like words or sentences. The genes are strung together in chromosomes, which is comparable to chapters in a book. The genome is everything, the whole book. The function of genes is to encode for making proteins. Therefore, genes encode messages (carried by a messenger molecule called RNA) to build proteins. The proteins perform the actual tasks encoded by the genes.

Here are some interesting features of the human genome:

  •  It contains over 3 billion letters of DNA code.
  • The DNA code is written in a 4 letter alphabet (AGCT), named after the initials of the 4 basic chemical units of DNA. If it were in book form, it would take more than 1.5 million pages to write it.
  • The structure of DNA is arranged in base pairs, strands that are connected like a spiral staircase (the double helix).
  • The total number of genes is about 20,687.
  • The genome divided in 23 pairs of chromosomes, 46 in total.
  • Human complexity arises from gene networks (more so than the number of individual genes). Genes can be turned on or off in specific situations, and work in different combinations to produce near-infinite functions.
  • Genes only make up a tiny portion of the genome (only 2%). Most of the DNA either regulates genes, has unknown functions or does nothing at all (junk DNA).
  • Part of our evolutionary past is carried in the genome, fragments of DNA that no longer serve a purpose. They are relics of DNA from ancient organisms that have gone dormant over time. These fragments vastly outnumber genes.
  • Human beings are 99.9% identical at the DNA level (a discrepancy of 1 letter in every 1,200 letters).

References: Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Gene (New York: Simon & Schuster, (2016).

DNA – Episode 3 of 5 – The Human Race – PBS Documentary, published on Mar 21, 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MJu9dL7a3ZI