In conversation with the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins on BBC Radio 4's "The Age of the Genome", Craig Venter is in no doubt about the place in history that sequencing the book of life deserves: "I think it's far more important than walking on the Moon; not much has happened since walking on the Moon."it's a pretty apt description.
The story refers to (read: promotes) a BBC radio series hosted by Richard Dawkins and called, "The Age of the Genome." We hasten to say we haven't yet listened to it -- and, well, we probably won't. As we see it, there is room for debate as to whether Dr Dawkins is 'Britain's leading intellectual' as the media often have called him. But if you do listen, we'd love to know what you think.
The story goes on:
In 2000, we knew of just a handful of genes which influence our risk of developing common diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancers.
According to Peter Donnelly, director of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics, says: "Because of the experiments we are now able to do, that number has gone from ten or twenty to something like 700, across well over 100 diseases now."
One of the clinical expectations from the human genome project was that one day we would be going to our doctors for a personal genome reading.
These DNA check-ups would reveal with precision our individual risks for the whole gamut of common diseases. Our doctors would advise us on lifestyle and prescribe preventive medicines and measures accordingly, tailored to our genetic endowment.
This is all pretty curious, actually, since on this side of the Atlantic, at least, the news that all this hype might be not much more than that has reached the major media by now. We blogged about the New York Times front page story on this just last week.
We don't like hammering away at this again and again, or just being persistent nay-sayers. The truth is that genome research is making some notable contributions, but is heavily and persistently lobbying by exaggerating its contribution to society and doing whatever it can to protect the enormous public and private investment in the genome's eyeview of life. These vested interests (e.g., the bank of DNA sequencers in the photo above) turn the temperature up on the lobbying and hyping, with media concupiscence, whenever it looks as if a bit of the tempering truth, that the promises have not been nearly lived up to, seems likely to leak out into the public domain. So as long as the carnival barkers are out there luring you in to see their side shows, we'll have to keep pointing out that the truth is much less rosy than they're telling you.
An especially serious side of this is that, in economic hard times, there are many far more urgent and likely to succeed areas in which to invest than genome research. Without falling into simply new fads and vested interests, climate, agricultural, energy dependence, population growth and consumption, infectious disease, and other similar problems are far more important, and likely to be aided by research. And of course food and ordinary low-tech interventions and prevention, not research, are what is really needed, far more than expensive, exotic approaches to disease.