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Feature

Man or Mouse?

Posted on: 10 Dec 02

Summary

The scientific community seemed to move into overdrive with the publication of the human genome, and the popular media responded this with reports of rapid advances to come in the field of human medic
The scientific community seemed to move into overdrive with the publication of the human genome, and the popular media responded this with reports of rapid advances to come in the field of human medicine. With genetic analysis at our fingertips, the theory went, we would be able to cure diseases before we had even caught them, by identifying our predisposition to particular conditions according to our genetic make-up. This posed many bioethical considerations - should a firm not hire an individual with a genetic predisposition to heart disease because that person might need expensive medical care that would raise health insurance premiums for everyone else? But on a practical note, the truth is that we are still in the early stages of mapping and understanding the human genome. This is hardly surprising when one considers that we need to identify all of the approximately 30,000 genes in human DNA, and determine the sequences of the 3 billion constituent chemical base pairs. Leveraging this knowledge base once we have arrived at it, to provide both preventative and curative medicines is yet another step further on the journey. So to declare that the publication in 2002 of the mouse genome (in the 5 December issue of Nature Magazine) as the greatest breakthrough in genomics may seem at first to be continuing this populist trend. But, this is exactly what some commentators are saying. Why? For a start, the 2.5 Gb mouse genome sequence, now made publicly available, reveals about 30,000 genes, with 99% having direct counterparts in humans. A companion paper lists 37,086 individual 'transcriptional units', which will help us understand those genes. So humans have about 30,000 genes, mice have about 30,000 genes, and 99% are the same – you can see where this is heading. The laboratory mouse will now provide an experimental platform that will provide a mirror to many aspects of human genetic research and broader aspects of human disease and biology. Research on the mouse with the added benefits of its publicly available genome will allow scientists to increase the pace of their research and its applications to humans. So moving us a step closer to the initial expectations when the human genome was published. It does not of course mean that we can dispense with bioethics. One might also argue, as does Larry Shapiro writing in the New York Times that “the remarkable similarity between mice and man … (might) show that tests that could not be ethically applied to human beings could for the same reasons not be ethically applied to mice”. Going back in time by four centuries or so, pioneer of deductive reasoning Francis Bacon said that ‘Knowledge is Power’ and Spanish philosopher Baltasar Gracian proposed that “The sole advantage of power is that you can do more good” - it is encouraging to see that the accelerating pace of genomics research seems to be matched by the body of work undertaken in the ethical questions and conundrums it poses. To step off in some other directions from this article, try http://www.ornl.gov/hgmis/elsi/elsi.html for an overview of the world's largest bioethics program, and of course you can go straight to the mouse genome server at ensembl http://www.ensembl.org/Mus_musculus/. For more information about Bacon, take a look at http://www.knuten.liu.se/~bjoch509/philosophers/bac.html.

Paul Hartigan

Last updated on: 27/08/2010 11:40:18

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