Gene genius sparks battle for humanity

30.10.04: THE MOST widely heralded and feared scientific project in history is complete after 16 years and a $3billion investment. The Human Genome Project has now completed the mapping of nearly 100,000 genes and in the process has changed human understanding of the natural world for ever.

Dr Francis Collins, the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) at the US National Institutes of Health, predicts it will usher in a new era.

Drugs will be made to neutralise the genetic codes of infectious diseases such as HIV and tuberculosis, while faulty genes predisposing to cancer or heart disease will be replaced. New crops will feed the hungry and the new knowledge may even provide clues to crack the mystery of consciousness.

"Historians will look back on this project as the most important thing we did in science at the turn of the century," Collins said.

Some of the shine has been rubbed off the remarkable achievement by the fact that a detailed synopsis of this Book of Life was released two years ago by the controversial molecular biologist J Craig Venter. He developed a method of sequencing genes that was far faster and cheaper than that used by NHGRI.

His method ignores what is known as "junk" DNA, the 70% of our genetic code that doesn't appear to code for anything. His map has allowed him to patent thousands of genes before anyone has any idea of what they do. Patenting is one of the most controversial aspects of the genome project. All genes are now patented.

And the ownership of our bodies doesn't stop there. A company called Biocyte already owns the patent on all blood cells from the umbilical cord of a newborn child. Another, Systemix, has patented all human bone marrow stem cells.

Bio-activists believe human life should not be up for sale in this way. "The American Patent Office has been bludgeoned into granting patents by the multinationals," says Arthur Spink of the Patent Action Foundation. "A patent is supposed to be for a new invention. These genetic prospectors haven't invented anything. They are just panning for genetic gold."

David Bird of Friends of Tomorrow said: "This will lead to two-tier medicine. It can cost $500 in royalty fees to check if your child has just one gene that makes breast cancer more likely. Imagine the cost to scan for all 5,000 single-gene disorders." JB

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How our bodies will benefit from the genome project

  • Brain - greater ability to beat organic diseases such as Alzheimer's and to manipulate psychological traits such as intelligence, shyness and aggression
  • Chest - greater knowledge of genes linked to breast cancer will improve treatment
  • Heart - understanding of genes involved in heart disease will lead to nutrition-based treatments
  • Spine - possibility of regrowing nerve tissue and recovering from spinal cord fractures
  • Pelvic area - improved ability to spot and treat hard-to-detect cancers in areas such as the womb
  • Genitals - ability to change the genetic blueprint of an embryo a few days after conception
  • Hands and feet - ability to regrow damaged limbs and organs from our own dna will eliminate rejection problems with transplants
  • Knees - development of dna vaccines to prevent bacterial infections suspected of causing diseases such as arthritis