Recorded: 28 May 2003
I’m afraid I am a dissident on the dangers of the genome. I believe that the dangers of the genome are not the knowledge of the genome, but of what people are willing to do to other people. If—I’m a geneticist, by inclination and by training. And I know that the essential ingredient in making changes in the human genome or in human inheritance. The essential ingredient is not technical science information or technical science material. It is the willingness to force people to have or not have children against their will. And as long as we’ve stated the principle that we’re not going to do that kind of thing, of interfering with people’s reproduction, then I think that the mathematics says that we’re not going to change the gene frequencies of the population. And if we’re not going to change the gene frequencies in the population I think that most of these “dangers” are not about the genome.
Now there are, of course, ethical issues associated with medical research and the chief among those in this country is the effect of the knowledge that you are predisposed to a disease might have on your employer or your insurance company or other economic agents. And that’s a problem that is properly a social problem and not a problem of genome or science. And while I admire the brilliance of the idea that we should spend time on the ethical consequences of genome science, I think that that principle applies to all kinds of science not to the genome in particular. And I think that the precedent that was set is a good one, but I don’t think that the genome poses any special danger.
David Botstein is a prominent geneticist whose advocacy for gene mapping was crucial in laying the groundwork for the Human Genome Project. Botstein received his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan for his research on bacteriophage synthesis. As a member of the MIT faculty he continued working with phage P22 DNA and discovered many bacterial and yeast genes. He served as Vice President of Science at Genentech before becoming professor at the Stanford School of Medicine where he led in sequencing the first large eucaryotic genome.
On July 1, 2003 he was appointed as Director of the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics at Princeton University. At Princeton he will continue to expound upon genome projects, explore the relationship between genes within the genome, and uncover how diseases like cancer alter the expression of genes.
Botstein researched at the CSHL while on sabbatical from 1974-1975. At the 1986 CSHL symposium on Human Genetics he played a crucial role in advocating for the Human Genome Project. While serving on the National Research Council Committee he emphasized that money be laid aside to fund the sequencing of other simpler organisms with which the human genome can be compared. Like Jim Watson, he has passionately supported the Human Genome Project since its inception.