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A new map

Genetic researchers are circling the airport of scientific discovery. They plan to land this summer with the first maps of a relatively complete human genome.

David Page, MD, is professor of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. He correlates encoding the human genome to mapping the "entire planet by satellite, rather than by hacking through the jungle with a machete." A "fairly complete rough-draft sequence of the human genome would put us at the Lewis and Clark stage" of the genetic map of life, he says.

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However "primitive" these early genetic maps appear, the conclusion is inevitable, says Dr. Page. Biologists will have to say, "We're all geneticists now."

But for most of us, the first place these maps will lead is a quagmire of questions about privacy over access to an individuals DNA data.

Some working definitions are in order: Genome refers to the total genetic information present in a cell and unique to any specific organism; DNA contains the genetic code and transmits the hereditary pattern of organisms.

What "we will bungle through," says Philip Reilly, an attorney, medical geneticist, and executive director of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver Center in Waltham, Mass., is "who has the right to know about our DNA?"

In the next few years, we will enter an era in which the medical establishment develops the ability to generate enormous amounts of genetic information about individuals at low cost. Dr. Reilly predicts within 10 years in the Western democracies, we will collect DNA samples on every human being.

Early maps are always interesting. Over time, as the blank spaces are filled in, a sense of place is establised. Privacy must be a clearly marked zone.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society