Issue 237 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review
'Within a century heart transplants could become unnecessary' Steve Jones: biology
When I started doing genetics 30 years ago, if someone had said that by the end of the century we'd have the complete human DNA sequence, they'd have been laughed at. In fact, we'll have it in a few months. But the DNA sequence is only a very simple instruction manual, and we aren't able to interpret what most of these instructions actually mean. Many of the scientists involved in the genome project have persuaded governments and private companies to give them hundreds of millions of dollars. Now they are being asked what practical applications will follow and they're suddenly going very quiet. The claim that gene therapy, the idea of cutting out and repairing damaged DNA, is around the corner now seems nonsensical. There has been a growing tendency among geneticists to over-sell their subject. In part that's just their excitement. But it could also be because many scientists, especially in the US, are shareholders in biotech companies.
The most dangerous word in genetics is the three letter word 'for'--the gene 'for' this or 'for' that. Apart from overt genetic illnesses like cystic fibrosis, the link between you and your genes is often very diffuse. To say there's a gene for happiness or for sadness or for aggression is silly. Height has increased by two or three inches since the Second World War, but that's entirely to do with the environment. That doesn't deny there are genes that influence human height.
Ten years ago I would have rubbished the idea that you would ever find genes that affected human intelligence. Recently a geneticist found that certain children with extraordinarily high IQs often possess an unusual variant of a growth factor gene. You could say that's the gene for some of the variation in IQ, but maybe all it's done is make their brains grow relatively larger when they were young. It still only explains 2 percent of variation in IQ. The mean IQ since the Second World War has gone up by 15 points. In this case the environment is overwhelmingly important. You can always do something with the environment, but you generally can't do anything with the genes. The more you know about genetics the more of an environmentalist you become.
I think that the most exciting area of biology isn't genetics but development--how you translate the genetic message into an organism. It's conceivable that within a century things like heart transplants will become unnecessary because you can persuade your own DNA to grow you a new heart. Advances such as non-reproductive cloning and the ability to culture stem cells could be one way forward.
For the time being genetics is just going to be high-tech medicine. It's only going to become dangerous, or risky, when it goes from being high-tech to public health medicine. If genetics can become relevant then it becomes both fascinating and alarming, and it will do so by the end of the next century.
The argument about GM foods isn't really an argument about science, it's about the world order. What people hate are big international combines and industrialised agriculture. I think that some of the arguments about GM foods are red herrings. From the evidence we have it seems extraordinarily unlikely that they are unsafe to eat. But there is a perceptible risk that genes from GM crops will spread from one plant to another. For Monsanto to claim otherwise is just lying. The chances of anything going wrong are small, but they're not zero. We have been through this thing twice already this century, with insecticides and antibiotics. No one can deny that these have been triumphs, millions of people would be dead without them. But feeding antibiotics to farm animals is criminal.
Potentially GM technology could revolutionise world agriculture. But the image of GM foods has been so destroyed it may never happen. Many are worried about the ecological consequences of GM crops. They don't go public with it but they ought to. I don't count myself as an expert but I try to say something.Mark Thomas: media