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Progress or Peril?

The ethical questions of human DNA mapping

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It's one of nature's most enduring mysteries: What makes human beings tick?

Why are they unique among living things? Do their genes really determine who they are?

Researchers think they are about to deliver some answers. When they do, they could change the world of medicine as profoundly as Copernicus transformed astronomy or Pasteur redirected biology and agriculture.

But this new world of genetic science is proving a crowded one. Researchers and entrepreneurs, engaged in a high-stakes race, are pushing and shoving to conquer the new frontier. It's as if, three years after Columbus discovered America, the land already ran thick with explorers, homesteaders, and Gold Rush entrepreneurs all looking to stake their claim.

Amid the elbowing and jostling, some researchers worry that the technology of genetic discovery has far outrun the public's ability to deal with the thicket of ethical issues it will create. The current debate over human genome ownership is troubling enough. Many more dilemmas lie ahead.

"You ain't seen nothing yet," says Stephen Joseph, president and chief executive officer of the National Center for Genome Resources, a nonprofit research institute in Santa Fe, N.M.

In years to come, he predicts, society will have to figure out whether insurance companies can set premiums based on an individual's genetic predisposition to disease; whether employers can screen new hires based on their genes; and, perhaps one day, whether parents have the right to decide the eye color and IQ of their unborn children.

"This new world is creating many dangers for the consumer," says Keith Wailoo, professor of social medicine and history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "The genome project is going to be the microcosm of these larger issues."

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