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The Human Genome Project: Research Tactics and Economic Strategies*

  • Alexander Rosenberg (a1)

In the Museum of Science and Technology in San Jose, California, there is a display dedicated to advances in biotechnology. Most prominent in the display is a double helix of telephone books stacked in two staggered spirals from the floor to the ceiling twenty-five feet above. The books are said to represent the current state of our knowledge of the eukaryotic genome: the primary sequences of DNA polynucleotides for the gene products which have been discovered so far in the twenty years since cloning and sequencing the genome became possible.

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1 Molecular biologists are sensitive to the fact that calling 95 percent of the human genome “junk DNA” undercuts the rationale for sequencing the whole genome. As a result, some are suggesting that the scientific community was over-hasty in coming to the unanimous conclusion that DNA sequences with no known possible function are “nonsense.”

2 Watson, James B., “Looking Forward,” Gene, vol. 135 (1993), pp. 309–15.

3 Collins, Francis and Galas, David, “A New Five Year Plan for the U.S. Human Genome Project,” Science, vol. 262 (1993), p. 46.

4 Roberts, Leslie, “Taking Stock of the Genome Project,” Science, vol. 262 (1993), p. 21. It is worth noting that unless the 1 percent error areas are identified, the entire genome will have to be resequenced to locate the areas to be double-checked.

5 In particular, two discoveries make this procedure possible. A viral enzyme, reverse transcriptase, has been isolated, which will build a complementary DNA chain onto a single-stranded DNA or RNA template. Polymerase chain reactions, chemical processes which can be fully automated, enable another enzyme to build up vast numbers of copies of a sequence of DNA bases quickly and cheaply.

6 See Arrow, Kenneth, The Economics of Information (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1984), pp. 142–43.

7 For further discussion, see Hirshleifer, Jack and Riley, John G., The Analytics of Uncertainty and Information (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), ch. 7.

8 Eisenberg, Rebecca S., “Patent Rights in the Human Genome Project” in Annas, George J. and Elias, Sherman, Gene Mapping (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 227. See also Sgaramella, V., “Lawyers' Delights and Geneticists' Nightmares: At Forty, the Double Helix Shows Some Wrinkles,” Gene, vol. 135 (1993), pp. 299302.

9 Eisenberg, , “Patent Rights in the Human Genome Project,” p. 227.

* I am grateful to Everly Fleischer for advice on an early draft of this essay, and to Elizabeth Willott for extended criticism of the penultimate one.

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Social Philosophy and Policy
  • ISSN: 0265-0525
  • EISSN: 1471-6437
  • URL: /core/journals/social-philosophy-and-policy
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