Recorded: 30 May 2003
Yes, I think the dangers are knowledge. Knowledge of your genome is not something which is necessarily easy to deal with. So the uses of the information—my mother died of Alzheimer’s disease. I do not want to know that I have predisposition for Alzheimer’s. And my genetics could actually tell me that, but I don’t want to know that. And that’s a decision that I made for lots of very obvious reasons. It’s knowledge without any ability to cope with it, to change it. That’s frightening. And that frightens everybody.
I think we’re at the most dangerous point of all. We know just a little bit about genetics. We don’t know enough. So, the truth is that everyone would die of a genetic disease, pretty much everybody unless you’re killed in an accident. So what that says then is that if you know a few of the genetic conditions that human beings can suffer from then people become very interested and can be diagnosed and people can be refused insurance and all of those sorts of discriminatory issues. But as we know more and more about the genetics that we have, you’ll come to the simple conclusion that I’m going to die of a series of conditions. I’m likely to die of those. And essentially it’s a random choice between those different conditions.
And so you come all the way back again to actually no longer being able to say something very specific about a small number of genes. If we know everything about our genes, then we will simply say that I’m likely to die of the things that a male of my age is likely to die of. And they’ll know a genetic reason for that but they won’t necessarily be able to predict anything. So we’re at the worst point of all at the moment. That we know a little and so we have to use that information. When we know much more, that information will change dramatically, and won’t become so damaging to the person.
So I think we’re going through a period where we have a little knowledge and that makes for some dangers. And as that knowledge gets to be more extensive, then it will become easier for us again. When people become accepting of this sort of information that genes tell us. When people know how to deal with a fifty percent chance of dying or a two percent or a one percent. I mean if I was told I had one percent chance of dying of something, I don’t know whether I’d be depressed or happy. It’s only one percent, you know. There’s ninety nine percent chance that I’m not going to die of it.
But we’re not taught how to deal with that information. It’s not natural information for us. So I think that is going to be a very interesting—it’s going to be a very interesting educational problem.
Peter Little is a bioinformatics researcher, professor of medical biochemistry and the head of the School of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. He received his Ph.D. working with recombinant DNA under Ed Southern and Peter Walker at Edinburgh University. In 1976, Little cloned a human gene – the second time this was ever accomplished.
Little’s laboratory studies the genetic basis of gene expression, and genetic variation as it pertains to the regulatory regions of the genes. He has hypothesized that there are two types of genetic variation that alter gene expression. His lab has also created advanced techniques for testing genetically influenced transcript variations.
He comes to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory regularly for genome meetings and symposia.