Tuesday, August 21, 2012

what IS the human genome?

TheScientist | The Human Genome project sequenced “the human genome” and is widely credited with setting in motion the most exciting era of fundamental new scientific discovery since Galileo. That’s remarkable, because in important ways “the human genome” that we have labeled as such doesn’t actually exist.

Plato essentially asserted that things like chairs and dogs, which we observe in this physical world, and even concepts like virtues, are but imperfect representations or instances of some ideal that exists, but not in the material world. Such a Platonic ideal is “the human genome,” a sequence of about 3 billion nucleotides arrayed across a linear scale of position from the start of chromosome 1 to the end of the sex chromosomes. Whether it was obtained from one person or several has so far been shrouded in secrecy for bioethical reasons, but it makes no real difference. What we call the human genome sequence is really just a reference: it cannot account for all the variability that exists in the species, just like no single dog on earth, real or imagined, can fully incorporate all the variability in the characteristics of dogs.

Nor is the human genome we have a “’normal” genome. What would it mean to be “normal” for the nucleotide at position 1,234,547 on chromosome 11? All we know is that the donor(s) had no identified disease when bled for the cause, but sooner or later some disease will arise. Essentially all available whole genome sequences show potentially disease-producing variants, even including nonfunctional genes, in donors who were unaffected at the time.


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