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15 - Ethics and the Gene Map page 1
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1. Introduction Link to the Medical Research Council web site
The Human Genome Project is an ambitious research programme which aims to sequence the entire human genome, down to the last base pair. It has been described as the Holy Grail of Biology and thousands of research scientists are working on it full-time. The knowledge it generates should bring great medical benefits. However, its findings also raise profound ethical issues.
Figure 1
Figure 1. Professor Sue Povey (centre) is Deputy Director of the MRC Human Biochemical Genetics Unit at University College, London. She qualified in medicine and did her finals in genetics. After working for Save the Children in North Africa she went to University College London in 1970 and has stayed there ever since, working on human genetics. She was part of the team that found the second of the two genes that causes tuberous sclerosis and is on the Council of the Human Genome Organisation. Back in 1987 she provided the gene for a1-antitrypsin that eventually led to Tracy the sheep, the first animal to be genetically engineered to produce a useful human protein (a1-antitrypsin) in her milk.
It is the biological equivalent of putting someone on the Moon. Each of us has a total of some three thousand million (i.e. three billion) base pairs along our 23 pairs of chromosomes and the aim of the Human Genome Project is to find the DNA sequence in all the chromosomes. Gene mapping is all about locating genes. Gene sequencing is all about finding out the nucleotide sequence of their DNA.
Although a great deal of work had been done on human gene mapping and sequencing through the 1970s and 1980s, the Human Genome Project really took off in the 1990s. By August 1998 some 16,000 of the 80,000 or so human genes had been sequenced and the hope is that the entire job will be finished by 2003, possibly earlier - you can place bets on the likely completion date. The total cost will be some $2 billion dollars, about 60 cents (40p) a base pair.
Question 1

Suppose you set out to recite the entire sequence of human DNA in a human cell and that you could read three bases a second out loud. How long would it take you?

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