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  Cosmic Debris
by Gary Greenberg
Of Apes and Men

April 2003--Much ado has been made about the recent news that the human genome is now totally mapped. Well, almost. Scientists from the government-backed Human Genome Project have announced that they’ve completed 97 percent of the human genome, which seems to be close enough for government work.

    Oddly enough, I’ve heard it said that chimpanzees and humans share 99 percent of each other’s genetic makeup. So the human genome map is complete for human beings who are approximately two percent less human than chimpanzees, which would include some law enforcement officers, most professional wrestlers and all TV weathermen.

    In any case, it seems as though this genome project has been dragging on forever. It must be ten years or more ago that an international effort was first made to map the genome. The various governments of various countries got together and took three years just to come up with a suitable name for the project, and since then have been hurtling along the genome trail at the blazing speed of genetically-altered grass, which grows about as fast as Astro-turf. And they might still be struggling over details--such as the last 3 percent of the genome which separates man from beast–-if it hadn’t been for Celera Genomics.

    Celera Genomics is a private company which not only has a cooler name than the Human Genome Project but also some fancy-shmancy computers that the governments of the world probably couldn’t afford. These computers managed to help Celera Genomics scientists sequence the 3.12 billion chemical base pairs that make up the complete human genome in a scant three years.

    Both Celera Genomics and the Human Genome Project have identified many genes that cause horrific hereditary diseases, such as cystic fibrosis, hemophilia and trash talking. The projects have also isolated the genes that make us susceptible to diseases previously thought to be caused by environmental factors, including  alcoholism, cancer and televagelism.  My question is: Why are they always focusing on the bad genes? Why don’t they look at the bright side and focus on the really important genetic stuff like vertical leap, 40-yard dash time and brassiere cup size? 

    Speaking of brassiere cup size, over in Scotland scientists who have trouble sleeping are cloning sheep. They named the first one Dolly after well-endowed Dolly Parton because the cell that Dolly the sheep was cloned from came from a mammary gland of an apparently well-endowed female sheep, also called a ewe. (Having a five-year-old Pokeson who roped me into seeing the first Pokemon movie, ‘Mew Two,’ I personally would have named the cloned sheep ‘Ewe Two.’) Some people probably
think that the name Dolly was a real stretch, probably women people who couldn’t follow the logic. For guys, however, put the words ‘Dolly’ and ‘mammary’ together and we all immediately envision Dolly Parton, or at least her most prominent features.

    But we started talking about genomes, and we really must get back to the more current genetic-based news, even if it has nothing to do with
mammary glands. Along with the unraveling of the human genome comes
responsibility. Soon, we will no doubt have the power to control our genetic make-up, and like any make-up, if we overdo it, we might end up looking like Tammy Faye Bakker. If we could choose the genetic make-up of our offspring, the world would be left with a bunch of Olympians and no midgets, bearded ladies and gay boy scouts. Are we truly on our way to Hitler’s Aryan race?

     Hmmmm. Am I suddenly being too serious for a humor column?DNA

     Okay. Let’s lighten up a little. The one thing more important than the ethical repercussions of genetic engineering are the economic repercussions. As we speak, companies are lining up to patent pieces of the human genome, sticking their little corporate flags in the newly discovered territories along the double helix trail. Can you see the futures market in ten years? The low cholesterol gene trading right alongside pork bellies?

     Of course, there is a big debate over whether or not it’s ethical to patent genetic information. I’m sure attorneys will sort out the answer, if and when they ever figure out what the word ‘ethical’ means.

     Darn! Now I’m getting sarcastic. This genome stuff must bring out the worst in me. Maybe if I wasn’t a short, prematurely gray and balding, far-sighted, crooked-nosed, knobby-kneed, gut-drifting specimen of the human species, I wouldn’t be so bitter about the dawning of this new era. Yet even I can see that there’s plenty of room for optimism. With 97 percent of the human genome already in the bank, we’re sure to start churning out some pretty perfect people soon, or at the very least some darn good chimpanzees.

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