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The decades of DNA

Events have moved faster than anyone expected since the century's key discovery in the science of biology was announced 30 years ago this week. That discovery - by James Watson of the United States and Francis Crick of Britain - was the double-helix or spiral-staircase structure of the master molecule found to affect the characteristics of all living things. This DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) molecule carries a genetic code made up of three-letter chemical ''words'' like a taped message along the helix strands.

Identifying the structure in 1953 opened the way to genetic manipulation radically exceeding the steps in controlling biological processes begun a hundred years before. By 1973 there were techniques involving recombinant DNA and molecular cloning (duplication). Now living organisms are patented for commercial purposes. People buy stock in genetic engineering companies. There is no reason to suppose the pace of development will not continue for another three decades.

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But for many thoughtful people the spiral staircase of DNA leads far beyond the biochemical, biotechnological realm. It leads to a new cherishing of the wonders of life on earth and a new searching for the essence of life as explored in philosophy and religion rather than the test tube.

In the United States, for example, manifestations of such concerns have appeared in the efforts by religious groups to define the ethical limits of human entry into the processes of nature. Should anything that is possible be permissible? Last year a pioneering report on genetic research by the National Council of Churches drew attention to the need to consider human values and social consequences in a highly controversial field.

A presidential commission confirmed that various religious groups' early doubts about lack of sufficient government oversight were well founded. It stopped short of spelling out ethical rules for the future. But it recommended establishment of an oversight group drawn from various backgrounds to monitor developments. This would seem a minimum to be followed through on in an official way.

But individuals in public and private all along the line of the new genetics have a responsibility to consult and act upon their highest concepts of life.

The drafter of the National Council of Churches report stated the question in one way when she said: ''Since God is the ultimate creator of life, we have to keep asking ourselves what our new ability to alter life really means.''

Yet when the Psalmist said that the Lord is ''the strength of my life,'' he pointed to an idea of life invulnerable to molecular control. By this definition the most sophisticated gene-splicing has no more power over the individual than the crudest theories of the past. The biological codes that are being dealt with so strikingly these days are not the structure of eternal life as perceived under higher laws.

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