Michael Ashburner on Dangers of Genomic Research
  Michael Ashburner     Biography    
Recorded: 31 May 2003

I think there’s a lot of concern. I don’t think that there are dangers in the sense that—a lot of nonsense had been talked and written about the possibility of targeting biological weapons to particular ethnic groups, for example. I really think that’s total nonsense.

I think that clearly modern genomic research poses societies with quite serious problems. Many of these are considered by ethicists, you know, for example, the extent to which insurance companies should have access to human genetic information. I actually think the major problem is an economic one in that the full exploitation of genomics for healthcare is clearly going to be expensive at least in the medium term. And particularly actually in the U.S., but in the Third World, access to healthcare is very uneven. And I think that one of my main concerns is the fact that there’s only one aspect of development and that is that medicine becomes more science based and more technological, and it gets more expensive, and that’s great for me. You know, for white, middle-class people on good incomes. But it really disenfranchises a huge number of people in our communities. And it’s that sort of problem which worries me much more than some of the problems which are classically discussed by ethicists.

I’m not terribly concerned. I think that there’s also been a lot of discussion, particularly after September 11th—because of the anthrax scare in the U.S. in October, November 2001, and because of the supposed possession of biological weapons by the Iraqis—there’s been a lot of discussion about the exploitation of genomics to enhance biological weapons.

Yeah, there’s no question that can be done, but I, again, there are very nasty organisms out there, you know, already. And the great problem with biological weapons isn’t their lethality, its technical problems about their delivery, which is why they’ve never been used. That they have never been used for serious warfare, and despite the fact that the U.S. government and the British government spent vast amounts of money on biological warfare research, particularly in the 1930’s and 1940’s. And the problem is that no one could ever convince the serious military planners that these weapons could be used effectively in warfare. They could be used for terrorism. But I don’t think the—well; I can imagine scenarios in making extremely lethal and infectious viruses. But by and large I think these fears have been greatly overblown.

And it’s curious in America, there’s total and complete paranoia in Washington about—and I think a great lack of understanding of just what these agents are and what they can do.

I’m not complacent about the consequences of genomic research, but I don’t really see—well, I can always imagine doomsday scenarios, but in general, at least in democratic societies that there’s quite a lot of self compensation and self regulation. So I think the major problem would be if we really do make advances in medicine and diagnosis and in treatment as a consequence of genomics. I mean the real challenge is getting those treatments, sort of ________done, down to everyone. And not just rich, white, middle-class people. And that’s the real challenge to society. But we had that challenge now for medicine. So, I mean, it’s nothing new.

Michael Ashburner, a leader in Drosophila Genetics and bioinformatics, received his B.A. (1964), M.A. (1968), Ph.D. (1968) and Sc.D. (1978) from the University of Cambridge, where he is currently professor of Biology in the Department of Genetics and a Professional Fellow of Churchill College.

He has been the joint head of European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI), of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) and was co-founder of Flybase, the primary online database for Drosophila genetics and molecular biology, the Gene Ontology Consortium, an effort to coordinate biological databases through a defined taxonomy of gene function, and the Crete Meetings, a bi-annual event focusing on the developmental and molecular biology of Drosophila melanogaster.

Among many honors, he is the recipient of the G.J. Mendel Medal (Czech Republic 1998) and the George W. Beadle Medal (Genetics Society of America 1999).

Michael Ashburner