In search of genetic waste

Mihály Dés (Lateral nº 75, 2001)

 Without wishing to be controversial, the author of this article takes the liberty of introducing a cautious note in the midst of the euphoria caused by the definitive recount of the human genome. Not that he is unhappy with the news. On the contrary, he is exultant. It is just that, rummaging around, he has found something in the waste (not necessarily in genetics) that he wants to tell you about.

Just like all my contemporaries, I too was filled with enthusiasm by the good News that “the human being only has about 30,000 genes.” Not that I expected much more: if they tell me that we have 17,800, I will be equally satisfied. Moreover, until yesterday, the scientists swore blind that we had 80,000. But let us not lose faith in science. In the next genetic inventory we can improve on the statistics. Whatever the definitive sequence, the cause of our universal happiness is not so much the exact number of genes (of whose evolution the media will keep us informed) as the fact that we barely have two thirds more than the common fly and one more than the maggot.

What great news! And I would have sworn that the common fly had only a quarter of mine. The maggot is another thing: of him, so human, I expected something more. But the common fly has positively surprised me and I hope that with this giddy advance in science we will soon be able to communicate with it. Without doubt, there are things we can learn from one another.

As was to be expected, the latest scientific revelations did not end with the discovery of the spectacular genetic vigour of the common fly. We have found out, for example, that 95 per cent of genes have no known function. It seems to me particularly stimulating that this overwhelming majority was ipso facto baptised as waste. In this way, postmodern science enters the millennial human (and perhaps dipterous) tradition of repudiating everything not understood or not known, while adopting the utilitarianism of our age which only values what is productive. After having humbly accepted that water is our main physical component, we now have to resign ourselves to the fact that we are around 95 per cent waste, human or genetic (whichever you prefer). Nobody would have imagined it.

The mental fatigue of the geneticist
 As you might suppose, calculating all these ominous percentages is supremely exhausting work, even when the corresponding organisations have supercomputers that undertake the worst part of the chore.

According to Craig Venter, Director of Celera Genomics (the private company that in the USA rivals a public consortium in the UK in counting genes), achieving and interpreting this data has been “mentally exhausting, in part because we are not mentally prepared to absorb all of this.” And if the great scientist, tired and redundant, is not mentally prepared, what about us, the euphoric receptors of the great news which promises to give new meaning to our lives?

Reflect on the limitless medical perspectives opened up thanks to the prevention of illnesses (or of the proclivity to them) through genomic analyses effected with minuscule devices called biochips. Put another way, in a future (Near? Far? We will see if we live long enough) it will be possible to cure a mountain of illnesses and extend life expectancy to biblical levels. So be it. But we know that these innovations will only be applied where there are the means to buy them and where a public health infrastructure guarantees the necessary resources. Thus, the biochips will only benefit this small part of the world in which life expectancy has already been extended by some two decades over the last half century, as against the majority of the countries in which it has barely increased or even shortened. With this, science promises a future minority world with a life expectancy of 120 years and another majority with a hopeless 30 or 40.

Variations of “Homo sapiens” I do not know how all of this will be reflected in the human genome, given that one of the most exultant revelations of this discovery has been that we share 98 per cent of DNA with the primates.

Although the difference may not be perceptible from the genetic point of view, it is clear that there are two very different, even opposed, variations of Homo sapiens.

One should also wonder what the aforementioned developed world citizen would do in his 120 years, apart from passing a good part of his time in the inevitable health controls and following medical instructions in order to reach the highly desired age of Moses. After the demise of God, totalitarian ideologies took over the traffic in the Redemption, and we now live in the era of Salvation through Health. The genetic perspectives introduce a revolutionary variant in this new nutritive and gymnastic spirituality. The desperate fight to be fit, to look young and maintain health, demands great individual effort, abstentions of all kinds and the ingestion of insipid foods. On the other hand, the biochips offer a more uplifting way to achieve these goals, as they open up new channels of consumption, which is also of interest.

It does not take a visionary mind to predict the enormous business that will ensue. From insurance to pharmaceutical companies, all kinds of institutions will be able to control the health expectations of citizens and their corresponding needs for medicines, hospital beds, medical treatment and so on, in order to establish their fees in accordance with demand and their position in the market.

Together with the hope of a greatly extended and well-maintained old age, the news that, according to the deciphered genome, racial difference lacks a scientific basis was met with jubilation. That at least is something! Until now, we positive thinkers have only come up with some vague and rather unscientific arguments in favour of racial equality and, of course, it has been difficult to defend our position. The thing is that those who had thought Einstein inferior for being a Jew or Pushkin for having a black grandfather are unlikely to be impressed by a genome. They will say that it has been miscalculated (and bearing in mind the weariness of the geneticists, this option cannot be discounted) or they will cling on to the last differentiating gene or chromosome to justify their delirium.

From a literary background, the most fascinating aspect of this subject seems to be the nucleotides, the scientific name of one letter of DNA. According to my reading, all human difference is based on only one of these letters or their combinations. It sounds cabalistic and perhaps it is. As you will remember, the Lord created the first human being out of dust. In the Bible he does not appear as Adam but as man, given that this is what Adam means. And the difference between the word dust and the word man lies in one single letter. This single letter is what the Rabbi of Prague lacked when, at the petition of his poorly treated contemporaries, he attempted to create, through magic, a superman who would defend them. Mistaking one letter, only one, in place of a hero he created the Golem, a monster. In these unique letters lies our essence and not in what (barely) separates us from the common fly or the chimpanzee. On these depends whether we are one way or another; they carry our individuality. This is why we are humans and not homunculi. And now it seems that of the 1.42 million combinations of these letters, only 60,000 are in the genes. The rest are in the dust, in genetic waste. Please, seek them out. Rummaging around in the waste, like a homeless person, has always been the true task of all art, of all science.

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One response to “In search of genetic waste

  1. Pingback: Feature | Dés Mihály

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