ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

22 December 2002


1.Fury at snub to organic food by safety watchdog


"The FSA [the UK's Food Standards Agency] chairman, Sir John Krebs, is accused by the Soil Association of being an advocate of genetically modified food.

"Sir John recently admitted to trying to 'undermine' claims that organic farming is more environmentally friendly than conventional agriculture.

"...Mounting disquiet towards Sir John is reflected in another letter to the FSA... The letter, signed by Sainsbury's and the National Farmers' Union, is critical of the watchdog's attempts to research the benefits of organic crops. They demand an explanation for an organics research programme announced by the FSA more than a year ago." (item 1)

"There have been huge advances  in  genetics  knowledge  over the past three decades. But in that  same  time  the  claims  made by the geneticists have far outrun their  actual  achievements.  There's also now a big industry built on all this. The whole biotech industry is based on hope and promise, and those are  very  powerful  driving  forces.  Everybody's hoping their investment -   be   it  financial,  political,  scientific  or  even philosophical - in genetics will pay off.

"It's  rather  like what happened at the end of the [Second World] War when  physicists  persuaded  governments  that  a  vast  investment in nuclear power would pay off in infinitely cheap energy. What happened? We got Chernobyl.' - Prof Steven Rose (item 2)


1.Fury at snub to organic food by safety watchdog

Mark Townsend
Sunday December 22, 2002
The Observer,6903,864351,00.html

Some of Britain's most famous high-street shops have launched an attack on the Government's food safety watchdog, accusing it of derailing the organic sector.

Supermarkets, including Sainsbury's, believe the refusal of the Food Standards Agency (FSA) to endorse organics could be costing the trade millions of pounds.

in the sector, yet are increasingly exasperated at the FSA's refusal even to acknowledge evidence of the environmental benefits of organics.

Representatives of the British Retail Consortium - which represents 90 per cent of the high street - and of the Food and Drink Federation are now demanding that the watchdog fully justifies its stance.

The Observer can also reveal that one of Tony Blair's key environmental advisers - Jonathon Porritt - has launched a separate attack on the FSA.

A letter from the chairman of the Government's Sustainable Development Commission to the watchdog warns that its 'credibility' is being damaged by its stance on organics.

Other eminent critics of the watchdog's intransigence include Prince Charles, who grows organics on his Highgrove estate.

The watchdog has retaliated by arguing that its stance is based on scientific evidence and was not designed to thwart the expansion of organic food.

The FSA chairman, Sir John Krebs, is accused by the Soil Association of being an advocate of genetically modified food.

Sir John recently admitted to trying to 'undermine' claims that organic farming is more environmentally friendly than conventional agriculture.

Mounting disquiet towards Sir John is reflected in another letter to the FSA, this time from green farming group Sustain. The letter, signed by Sainsbury's and the National Farmers' Union, is critical of the watchdog's attempts to research the benefits of organic crops. They demand an explanation for an organics research programme announced by the FSA more than a year ago.

Such concern is also mirrored in Whitehall. Michael Meacher, Environment Minister, and animal welfare Minister Elliot Morley are known to have voiced their concerns to Sir John.

However, a spokesman for the FSA said: 'There is no difference between organics and conventionally produced food. It's a matter of consumer choice. There is no scientific evidence that organic produce is any different.'

Despite the absence of the FSA's backing, sales of organic food have soared by 40 per cent annually over the past six years.

It is one of the fastest-growing areas of the UK food and drink sector with sales of £1 billion a year.

One source at a major retailer admits the FSA's advice has made it difficult to promote organics. 'It makes it very difficult to communicate the message, especially as standards are getting higher.'

Patrick Holden, director of the Soil Association, said: 'The confidence should be underpinned by the FSA rather than undermined. The market could be losing millions a year.'



The Observer
Sunday December 22, 2002,11581,864371,00.html

Gene  science  has the potential to transform the course of our lives, from  'designer  babies'  to  slowing  the ageing process. But how far advanced is it - and exactly where is it going? Mike Bygrave asked the scientists at its cutting edge to separate the hype from the reality

It  has  been  the  Year  of  the  Gene.  Fresh  from their triumph of 'sequencing'  (spelling  out)  the  three billion letters of the human genome,  molecular biology and the New Genetics left the science pages and hit the front pages.

Genetic  discoveries  alternated with genetic threats in the headlines almost  daily.  One  day  scientists  found genes 'for' asthma or skin cancer.  The  next  day  came warnings over GM foods or mix-ups at IVF clinics  like  the one that resulted in a white mother giving birth to two black  babies. Last week, a High Court ruling dashed the hopes of parents who  wanted  to  create  a 'tissue-typed' baby to help a sick sibling.

Worries  over  the health of Dolly the sheep, the world's first clone, were   set   against   regular   rumours  of  human  cloning  (as  yet unsubstantiated).  While DNA testing became standard police procedure, no one  was sure how they felt about its forthcoming use as a routine medical tool, available at your local GP's surgery - a fear symbolised by the spat over stolen DNA being used to prove Steve Bing's paternity of Liz Hurley's baby.

In  the  US, the Bush administration restricted stem-cell research and is on  the  verge  of  banning  all  human  cloning, causing an angry reaction  from  patients  who  might  benefit, led by the quadriplegic actor  Christopher Reeve. In Britain, the Nobel Prize for Medicine was shared  by  Sir  John  Sulston  of Cambridge's Laboratory of Molecular Biology  - who promptly used his new fame to warn about the dangers in the New Genetics.

In the realm of ideas, too, everything seemed to be about biology. The nature  versus  nurture  debate  revived from the Sixties, when it had revolved around IQ and had bitter, racial overtones. This time around, it was  less  to  do  with  race  but  no  less  bitter, with genetic fundamentalists such as Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins arguing that 'the  answer lies in our genes'. Opponents, such as media psychologist Oliver James, defended more flexible accounts of human behaviour.

Meanwhile,  a  separate,  equally hard-fought controversy erupted over the future  of molecular biology itself and its promise - or threat - to transform  what  it  means  to  be  human.  Is  the New Genetics a Frankenstein  science, leading to a post-human future full of designer babies  for  those  who  can  afford  them  ruling  over a genetically deprived  underclass? Do we need to regulate research now if we are to preserve  our essential humanity, as the American intellectual Francis Fukuyama argued in his new book, Our Posthuman Future ?

Last  summer,  Fukuyama  visited  Britain  to  debate with Los Angeles science  writer  Gregory Stock whose book, Redesigning Humans, takes a gung-ho view of the New Genetics. Their debate stayed on the 'designer babies  versus Frankenstein's monster' level. To critics such as Steve Jones  -  professor  of  genetics at the Galton Laboratory, University College,  London, and a top popular science writer himself - that is a missed opportunity, a fake issue arising from the 'huge overselling of genetics  that  has  been going on almost since the science began. The problem is that people who are not scientists - and some who are - are using  science  to explore questions which are not scientific but have to do with ethics or identity or social change.'

Robin  Lovell-Badge, a scientist with the Medical Research Council who was on  the  panel  for  the Stock-Fukuyama debate, agrees that 'such debates are  missed opportunities because they are more about science fiction than science fact. We need to concentrate on what is possible and  not  on fantasy. There should be a debate and the public clearly wants one, but they need proper information in order to take part.'

So  what  is  possible? What constitutes 'proper information'? And how come  the past 100 years turned out to be, in science historian Evelyn Fox-Keller's phrase, 'the century of the gene' in the first place?


In 1953, Cambridge scientists Francis Crick and James Watson announced the double helix structure of the DNA molecule. It was one of the most celebrated  scientific discoveries of the twentieth century. A gene is a strand of DNA. And DNA, with its four-letter genetic code (A,G,C,T), is us.  The four letters, which are arranged in sequences of three to make up  the six billion letters in the human genome, are the initial letters of the names of four amino acids which are DNA's bases. Those acids  join to  make proteins which in turn become cells which become bodies  (and brains).  Hence the Central Dogma formulated by Crick in 1957:  'DNA makes  RNA  [another acid, a kind of copy of itself], RNA makes protein and proteins make us.'

According  to  Steve Rose, author and professor of biology at the Open University,  'that's  where you start to get those metaphors of DNA as the Master  Molecule and genes as the key to the Book of Life and all that stuff.  Like  all  great  simplifications  in  science, [Crick's Central Dogma] was brilliant - and not true.'

Rose  means  that  we  now have a much more complicated picture of how genes  work  than  Crick's  original  scheme.  Instead of a repetitive one-note,  it's  more like a 'cellular jazz orchestra' in Rose's view. But even  as  that picture began to change, there were two more major landmarks   in   the  New  Genetics.  They  were  the  development  of recombinant  DNA technology in the Seventies and the sequencing of the entire  human genome, which was completed with chronological symbolism just as the century ended.

Recombinant DNA technology is the technology behind those catchphrases like   'genetic   engineering'  and  'gene  therapy'.  Thanks  to  its procedures,  scientists can manipulate genes, take genes from one form of life  and transplant them into another, translate and even rewrite that Book  of Life, if you like - and the Book is now being rewritten or retranslated daily, though as yet only among plants (GM foods) and certain animals, and even there much of the work is experimental. Some people believe the radical difference in complexity between plants and animals on the one hand and human beings on the other - along with the high  wastage rate involved in these technologies - means the gap can never be bridged, except in limited ways.

Once  we  thought  that  the  biological world existed in rigid, fixed compartments.  Each species kept to itself; plants kept to themselves. About the only interaction between them happened when some of them ate others.  Now  we find the life-world is a much more fluid, plastic and unified  place  than  we  imagined.  This change of view is the sum of three broad discoveries of the New Genetics.

First,  we  now  know  the  DNA  profiles  of  some organisms are very similar:  for  instance,  humans share 98 per cent of genetic material with  chimpanzees.  Second,  we  know  that  genes are interchangeable between  species.  And  third,  we  know  that individual genes can be persuaded to behave in plastic ways within an organism, for example in cloning  and  stem-cell research. Put these three pieces of the puzzle together  and  optimistic scientists believe they will one day be able to intervene to alter humans by manipulating our genes.

Why should we want them to? Well, for a start you will probably die of a genetic  disease. Now that the infectious diseases which killed our ancestors  at  early ages have largely been conquered in the rich West (with  the  exception  of  Aids),  most  people die of the diseases of ageing,  which  are genetic. And geneticists have an increasing amount to say  about  ageing. Then there are all the other, rarer conditions which still  cripple and kill millions, from Parkinson's to diabetes, cystic fibrosis to Down's syndrome.

Christopher Reeve is the most famous person paralysed by a spinal cord injury  which  stem-cell  research  may  one  day help. There is now a tremendous  amount  of  research  going on into Alzheimer's - a famous sufferer was the late Iris Murdoch.

After  talking to a range of working scientists and researchers, it is relatively  easy to come up with a short list of the hot button topics in genetics  and  their likely progress over, say, the next 10 years. The consensus about what can and cannot (and may never be) done is not complete,  but  it  is  impressive.  There  is more than enough on the agenda  to keep everyone busy without worrying about designer babies - or Frankenstein's monsters either.


The list goes like this:

 pre-implantation genetic diagnosis;
 germ-line therapy  and  gene  therapy,  which together comprise what most people think  of  as  'genetic  engineering';
 stem-cell  research;
 ageing;  and
 the impenetrably named pharmacogenetics, which could turn out to be the most useful of all.

Extend  the  list  outside of human beings and it gets both longer and more  commercial, including things like GM crops, genetic enhancements of animals bred for food, genetically modified animals used as living 'drug factories' (called 'pharming'), and more. Many of the things the Fukuyamas and Stocks fear (or welcome) for humans are being tried with animals  and plants.  But  they  work  only  where  the safety of the subjects  is not considered a major issue (as opposed to the safety of consumers,  an issue  with  GM foods) and very high failure rates are socially acceptable. In other words, these technologies cannot simply be transferred  from plants and animals to humans - and perhaps never will be.

Apart  from  cloning - the most famous of all genetic buzzwords. Dolly the cloned  sheep  is  the  poster girl for the New Genetics. Dolly's birth in  1997  caused  a  sensation  in  part because people were so certain it  could  not  be  done.  Well, it can, but it is messy: 276 failed attempts  to  make  a  sheep  before Dolly; about 9,000 cloned embryos needed  to  produce around 70 cloned calves, a third of which died  young. Some  scientists  believe  even  healthy-looking  clones conceal  genetic abnormalities.  And  there has been total failure in cloning  horses and chickens, though no one knows why. Will there be a human  clone one day? Almost certainly, though nowhere near as soon as scientific self-promoters  such  as  Italy's  Severino  Antinori keep announcing (but not delivering).

Cloning  makes  us  both  excited  and  uneasy  because  of its sci-fi implications.  Perhaps  we  should  not  worry so much. Even if (when) cloning becomes safe enough to use with humans, it is hard to think of any real demand for it beyond a handful of eccentrics.

Gregory  Stock,  who spends his life travelling and lecturing on these issues,  has  met  most  of  the  obvious  candidates - the terminally infertile;  people  who have taken terrible tragic losses of a beloved son or  only  daughter  or  young wife. Most say yes, they have heard about cloning,  they  thought  about  it,  but  no,  even  if  it was available, they know a clone would not be the same as their lost loved one (a person is not just his or her genes) or as the child they crave (a  clone  is  a clone of one person only). They understand that what they  want  is different from anything science could ever provide. One or  two would want it anyway. But then, as Lovell-Badge says: 'Does it really matter if there are a few clones walking about?'


The  controversy  over human cloning underlines the New Genetics' link to fertility and existing sexual technologies. The New Genetics has to do with birth as much as it does with ageing. It plugs into the strong emotions  aroused  by  sex  and  death  - hence the histrionic tone of debates over genetic issues.

Having  healthy  children  - or having children at all - is the second reason  we  want  scientists  to  intervene in our biology. Unlike the science of ageing, which remains mostly in the research lab, fertility is already a huge business involving big money and a half-hidden ocean of human misery. About one married couple in six has some problem with fertility.  More  than  one  million  people  have  now  been born via artificial  insemination.  Estimates  are  that,  within  two or three years,  about  the  same  number will have begun their lives in a test tube  (or  these  days,  a  Petri  dish).  And there are all the scare stories about surrogate mothers and mix-ups at fertility clinics.

Meanwhile   IVF,   the  leading-edge  technology,  which  consists  of harvesting  the  eggs  from  a  woman's  womb,  fertilising  them  and replacing   some   of  the  embryos,  remains  a  clunky,  unpleasant, emotionally draining procedure with a significant failure rate. As one expert  told a recent London conference on IVF: 'I do feel, often, IVF patients are the experiment.'

Genetics   slips   in  alongside  IVF  at  present,  in  the  form  of 'pre-implantation  genetic  diagnosis', PGD for short. PGD is a proven medical  technology  (although  it  remains expensive and difficult to do).  Given  the  'therapeutic  gap'  between  basic  science  and its translation  into  clinical  treatments  - the most obvious example is cancer  where  there  has not really been a new treatment in 50 years, during which time billions have been poured into cancer research - PGD may be  the New Genetics' main contribution to human welfare for some years to come.

In  an  IVF clinic, a number of eggs are fertilised and developed into embryos outside the womb. With certain mothers, usually those who have already  borne  a  child with a genetic mutation like cystic fibrosis, their  embryos  can  now  be  screened  for the several thousand known conditions  caused  by  a 'single-gene disease'. Then only the healthy embryos are implanted.

Then  there is sex selection. The traditional methods were infanticide and abortion  and  they were widespread. The New Genetics offers new, improved ways  of  testing  for sex and, for those who can afford the procedures, ways of trying to choose their baby's sex in advance (the main  method, called sperm-sorting, is, like IVF, clunky and far from foolproof).

What  is  a  controversial  consumer  item (cost: £8,000) in the First World  can be a harsher matter elsewhere. In parts of the Third World, a foetus  of  the wrong sex (ie female) can be an instant trigger for abortion  and  there  are  reportedly  major,  semi-illicit  trades in testing  and  aborting  for gender. As science advances, there will be other,  medical  -  as  opposed to cultural and economic - versions of this  dilemma.  For example, more pregnant women will be told they are carrying  a  child  with  a disease that will kill him (or her) in his thirties  or  forties  and  for  which  there is no current cure. What should  they  do?  In  30  or 40 years, science may have found a cure. Anyway, are 30 or 40 years not a life - or worth a life?

There  will  be more adults, too, whose GPs will be able to tell them, via DNA diagnosis, what disease will kill them and maybe roughly when -  and for  them there will be no 30 or 40 years to wait and no cure. Will  they want to know their fate? Will their life insurers and their medical insurers and their employers want to know? And whose right to know will win?

At  present,  one  child  in  30  in  Britain  is  born with a genetic disorder.  Across  the  world,  there  are large areas with even worse incidences.  Whatever  your  feelings  about  sex  selection and other refinements,  most  people  endorse  the use of PGD to screen for such disorders.

Scientists  hope  to  improve the technology to the point where it can screen  for  one, maybe even two, positive 'traits' - for example blue eyes  and  height.  That would still rule out the ideas of the genetic visionaries  like  Stock,  who  think  PGD  could be the first step to 'designer  babies'  and  the  re-engineering  of  mankind, by allowing parents  to  select among their embryos for all sorts of desirable (to the parents) qualities. The reasons this cannot work are not technical so much as statistical, to do with the way genes are passed on through sex. To screen for two traits you need at least 16 embryos, for three, 64  embryos and  so  on.  Since  the maximum number of embryos an IVF procedure produces  are  typically  between 16 and 20, you can do the sums.

Gene  therapy  applies to adults; germ-line therapy is gene therapy on embryos.  The  one on adults has not worked out so far. Undaunted, the visionaries  argue  that  germ-line therapy will actually be an easier proposition for the obvious reason that everything is more fluid then, less  fixed  or  developed.  As  Stock  writes,  'the  need to ferry a therapeutic  gene  into  particular  tissue  [in  adult  gene therapy] disappears because [in embryos] the gene is already in every cell. The challenge  is  to  regulate the gene so that it is active at the right level and at the right time and place.'

Attempting to alter genes in human embryos is controversial because it means  manipulating  the  genetic  inheritance  of  someone who cannot consent.  No  one  is  attempting it right now. Moreover, to work as a therapy,  it  would  need  to  alter that person's descendants too, on through  generations.  So why not use PGD and eliminate that embryo in the first place?


The biggest surprise to me talking to biologists was the progress they are making  at the other end of the human story - namely, old age and death. Ageing  research  is  a  new  branch  of  science.  Until very recently, the  Big  Money  and the Big Science went into studying the diseases  of ageing, like cancer: any knowledge of the ageing process itself was a by-product. Now, if people like Professor Tom Kirkwood of the  University of Newcastle have their way, the position is about to be  reversed.  'Much more has been done in ageing research than is yet widely  recognised,' he says. 'We now understand much more clearly the nature of the beast - the broad structure of the mechanisms that leads to ageing and age-related diseases.'

According  to Kirkwood, at the root of this structure is rubbish. Most of our  cells  divide  and copy throughout our lives. Red blood cells renew themselves every four months or so, for instance. At the genetic level, each  of  us makes thousands of miles of new DNA every minute. Numerous mutations  - errors - creep in and, though the body includes intricate repair and maintenance tools, they do not catch or fix them all. Gradually,  the  errors  -  the  rubbish - pile up and swamp the system until  they  create 'the biological identity crisis' (in Steve Jones's phrase) which is ageing and death.

We are starting to get a fair picture of how that crisis develops, and to draw some conclusions. The strangest one is that eating less might prolong life. This is not a question of that old schoolyard game, the thinnies versus the fatties. We are talking about extreme low-calorie diets. Placed  on  such  diets, mice and rats live longer. Why should that be?

'Organisms evolve under the pressure of natural selection, which tries to maximise  an  organism's  individual  fitness,  its  capacity  to perpetuate  its  genes,'  Kirkwood  says.  'There  are  two aspects to fitness:  one  is  how  long  the  individual  lives and the second is fertility.  For both of these you need resources - food. What seems to happen  is  that in bad times, when food is scarce, mice and rats shut down  their fertility and use their resources for survival - longevity - by  shifting  them  into  bolstering  their  repair and maintenance mechanisms.'

The  theory  is  that  humans, because they died young for most of our species'  history,  have  evolved putting more of their resources into fertility  and less into repair and maintenance. Low-calorie diets are an amusing  sub-plot  for  ageing  researchers,  who  have a range of targets and  techniques to bring to bear on the ageing process - and, in the end, to prolong life itself.

Kirkwood  says: 'In ageing, in cancer research, in stem-cell research, in several  of these fields, we actually know quite well in principle what we  need  to  do  to  intervene.  But the devil is always in the details. What  we  have  to  do  is  understand  the  mechanisms  in sufficiently close  details  that we can develop effective treatments and,  as  cancer research  has  shown,  that  can  be a frustratingly difficult problem.'


Kirkwood  describes  ageing  research as a 'marathon', where we are on the starting line. That leaves stem cells as the hottest candidate for the next 'medical miracle'.

Remember  all  those  embryos the IVF clinic did not use but threw out instead? That's where stem cells come from. Stem cells are a different kind of 'rubbish' from ageing debris. Stem cells are the kind that can be recycled. But their origin makes them controversial, especially in America,  where  the  religious Right has included them in its crusade against  abortion.  Their manipulation by scientists, who then have to grow  them  via  so-called  'therapeutic  cloning',  also  makes  them controversial among some bio-ethicists who consider this the 'slippery slope' to full human cloning, which they oppose.

The  US  Right  has seized on stem cells to symbolise everything about the New  Genetics that frightens people - its supposed 'Frankenstein' implications,  tampering  with human identity, cloning, the connection with  abortion,  'playing  God'.  The  Bush administration has limited federally  funded  researchers  to  using  64  'cell lines' already in existence.

Although  the  Bush  restrictions  at  present  apply  only to federal research  money,  they  have  been enough to trigger an angry response from patients who look to stem-cell research as their great hope. In a recent  Guardian interview, Christopher Reeve - who has been paralysed since  his  1995  horse-riding  accident  -  argued  'if we'd had full government  support,  full  government funding for aggressive research using embryonic stem cells from the moment they were first isolated at the University  of Wisconsin in 1998, I don't think it's unreasonable to speculate that we might be in human trials by now ... I'm angry and disappointed  ...  I  think we could have been much further along with scientific  research  than  we  actually are, and I think I would have been in quite a different situation than I am today.'

With  Bush's  recent  mid-term  victories, there is the threat of even more  US  regulation  and religious controversy. It has been enough to make  scientists look for an alternative to embryonic stem cells, such as adult  stem  cells.  Hence the recent headlines when US scientists proposed injecting human embryonic stem cells into a mouse. The trial, if it  happens,  might  show whether embryonic cells work in a living animal. But the resulting man-mouse chimera is unpredictable.

The   diseases   stem-cell   researchers  have  in  their  sights  are Parkinson's,  diabetes  and  spinal  cord  injuries  like Reeve's. The reasons  are  to  do  with the nature of the diseases (or the injury). With  Parkinson's  and  diabetes,  we  already  know  we  can  get  'a significant  cure  of  the  symptoms',  as  Lovell-Badge  puts  it, by 'delivering  cells to the right sort of region'. Likewise, with spinal cord  injuries, 'there are a whole lot of different approaches each of which suggests you can get some sort of repair with these injuries'.

Lovell-Badge, whose own research is on mouse and not human cells, sees clinical  experiments  using  stem  cells with Parkinson's and perhaps diabetes  too within five years, clinical trials within 10 and general medical use in around 15 years. Spinal cord injuries will take longer.


Another  way  of  using  genetics  in  medicine has to do with drugs - pharmacogenetics  as  it  is  called.  If  ageing  is  a new branch of science,  pharmacogenetics  is  only  just  out  of  the  womb.  David Goldstein,  an American expat professor at University College, London, is one  of  its leaders. 'In the future medicines will be tailored to people's  genetic  make-up,'  Goldstein  believes. 'We don't know much about genetic responses to drugs yet. What we do know is that variable response  to  drugs  is  an  important  medical  problem. Adverse drug reactions are actually a leading cause of death in the developed world - fourth  or  fifth  in America. Some of that is environmental - drug interactions,  diet  and  so on - but some is genetic. When you add in that  all  the drugs in use today work on fewer than half the patients for whom they're prescribed, you see the potential.'

Two  things  are  needed  to realise that potential. One is collecting 'sample  sets'  of  information  about  how  patients react to various drugs.  That  is  the  hardest  because  hospitals  and doctors do not operate that way. They try one drug, then another, until they find one that  works but which drug or what combination does not matter. No one collects the information.

The  other thing is powerful computer programs that could hunt for the variables  once  the raw data was collected. Those did not exist until recently,  but  they  are  starting  to  be developed now. Put the two together  and  'medicine  will  become  quite  a  bit more effective,' Goldstein says.


By  the  end  of  the Nineties, the century of the gene had become the century  of  genetic  determinism.  So far, the new century looks like being  even  more  of  the  same.  Popularised by Richard Dawkins, the notion  of 'selfish genery' is a particular take on Darwin's theory of evolution. According to this twist, bodies are just 'lumbering robots' for the  transmission  of  the all-important genes. Conversely, then, genes must  be  the  essence  of  a person. Maybe there are genes for intelligence  and  beauty, genes for alcoholism and criminality: if it is not  in your genes, you do not have it, and if it is, you have and always will.

The trouble with this view is that its meaning is as much political as scientific - and the science is increasingly under attack.

Steve Rose says: 'Part of the reason [genetic determinism] has been so popular  is  people have despaired of social solutions to problems. In the Sixties,   people  thought  that  through  revolution  -  social engineering  -  you  could  achieve  almost  anything.  Now people are fatalistic,  there is no way to change things, which fits with genetic determinism.  Then  along  comes  this  Promethean-looking  technology called  "genetics", which promises to change humans scientifically. It all fits very well with a laisser-faire liberal political ideology.'

It  is  also a paradox, as Rose points out. On the one hand, genes are destiny  that  no  one  can  escape.  On the other hand, there are new technologies  we  are  developing  which  will enable us to do exactly that.

Besides,  Rose  says,  our  picture  of  how  genes  work is much more complex,  interactive  and open than it used to be. It no longer makes much sense to say there is a gene or even multiple genes 'for' a trait like alcoholism.

On  the  broader  scale  as well, scientists like the late Stephen Jay Gould  have  challenged the exclusive role of natural selection in the process,   arguing   that   other   factors   are   involved.  Genetic fundamentalists such as Dawkins and Pinker get the publicity, but many other scientists feel they are dealing with a biological world where a reductionist  view  may  be  essential  in  order  to  take  apart and understand  how  small  pieces  of the mechanism work; but those small pieces  make  sense  only when fitted back into an enormously complex, interactive whole.

Most  scientists accept there will be regulation of this new field but they  want  to  see  it kept to a minimum. 'There weren't any motoring offences  before  there  were cars,' one said, meaning no one felt the need  to  announce sweeping moral principles about driving before cars were on the roads.

At the same time, scientists are equally wary of shunning such debates altogether. Everyone remembers Lord Rutherford, the greatest expert on the atom,  saying  an atomic bomb was unthinkable - ridiculous - like landing people  on  the  moon. No one dares to rule out a Big Bang in genetics (even though they cannot see how it could happen) which would make current fantasies of designer babies and Frankenstein's monsters come true too.

Then  there  is Rose's wryly radical assessment: 'There have been huge advances  in  genetics  knowledge  over the past three decades. But in that  same  time  the  claims  made by the geneticists have far outrun their  actual  achievements.  There's also now a big industry built on all this. The whole biotech industry is based on hope and promise, and those are  very  powerful  driving  forces.  Everybody's hoping their investment -   be   it  financial,  political,  scientific  or  even philosophical - in genetics will pay off.

'It's  rather  like what happened at the end of the [Second World] War when  physicists  persuaded  governments  that  a  vast  investment in nuclear power would pay off in infinitely cheap energy. What happened? We got Chernobyl.'

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