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EMBL/EMBO Joint Conference 2000

John Collinge, Imperial College, London, UK


On human genome projects: Uses and abuses

With the Human Genome Project, for the first time in its history modern biology was transformed into "Big Science". Since then, entire new vistas have opened up for possible progress in the medical sciences. But, as with nuclear power in an earlier age, there has grown an awareness of negative as well as positive repercussions that may accompany this monumental success of "the genomic turn" in modern biology. Historians have documented the state implementation of eugenics (one form of applied genetics) in different national contexts in Europe and in the U.S. during the relatively recent past, and how such science was then applied to rationalize extermination policies by the Nazi regime in Germany. With the revolutionary progress of recombinant DNA technologies and big-scale gemonics research, worries have now resurfaced that these enabling technologies can be used for undesirable as well as desirable ends. As science has become integrated into "the new economy" of globalization, the knowledge it produces is being directly transplanted into the "savage" fields of the market place where the profit motive is omnipresent. Generation and use of genetic information relating (to) people should therefore be accompanied by the establishment of democratic ways and means for control, at the local as well as the global level, to preempt the danger of abuses: discrimination, violation of privacy, or excessive commercialization. An additional concern is how "the genomic turn" in biology may be transforming the world-view and self-under-standing of people in society: their view of Nature, their view of themselves.