Caution and Optimism: The Future of Genetics in Biology

 The Tale for Caution:

While the very thought of eugenics now obviously shouts unethical. Although, the movement started out with American scientists with not so malevolent intentions. T.H. Morgan warned us of the scientific discrepancy two decades before America dropped two atomic bombs in a war fought against the ideals that first kindled in their very own country in his 1925 publication of Evolution and Genetics,

“In the case of man’s physical defects, there are a few extremely abnormal conditions where the evidence indicates that something is inherited, but even here there is much that is obscure. The case most often quoted is feeble-mindedness that has been said to be inherited as a Mendelian recessive, but until some more satisfactory definition can be given as to where feeble-mindedness begins and ends, and until it has been determined how many and what internal physical defects may produce a general condition of this sort, and until it has been determined to what extent feeble-mindedness is due to syphilis, it is extravagant to pretend to claim there is a single Mendelian factor for this condition … until all the social conditions surrounding the childhood of the individual are examined and given proper weight, serious doubts will arise as to what form of inheritances is producing the results.”[4]The Manolio and Wiess papers are bringing us back into a repeated ethical dilemma throughout history. Technology is exponentially becoming more accessible and data pools are getting so large we are drowning in them. These are problems we have been dealing with aren’t new. We have been battling them for a hundred years. Life scientists have been on the front lines of misinformation from eugenics to the anti-GMO movements. These movements can be tied to instances of rapid knowledge and technology advancements in new exciting booming fields that were poorly presented to the public and resonated with cognitive biases. Excitement to quickly publish research and the inability for the public to grasp it without bias falls on us as scientists. As we push the bounds of scientific inquiry, we have a responsibility to present and conduct our research without wearing rose colored glasses. We have made mistakes in plant science by creating GMOs with good intentions. For example, like the rice enriched with Vitamin A to help children from going blind in impoverished parts of the world. The WHO estimates that 500,000 children go blind each year from the lack of Vitamin A. Then we become shocked when our ideas and products are completely rejected by the target population. The population had so much distrust for the genetics and scientific community that it would rather let children go blind than eat genetically engineered rice [3]. The public doesn’t trust us, and it is imperative that we do not make any more mistakes. This is no longer a problem we can tackle without the help from interdisciplinary perspectives. No matter how exciting the research may seem, the harshest skeptical angle is important to present.

I think large scale sequencing data has its place in genetics and the life sciences, but there is no golden ticket that has all the answers. We should be using data to find correlations and mapping possible pathways. This is very useful information in understanding the pathology of disease. We do need to be careful of overstating its value and not make impossible promises to the public. If we make promises and pump out a bunch of unproven indicators of disease, we could be repeating history with unintended consequences and potentially causing hysteria and chaos. In the past we have created unintended consequences of poisoning people in the case of Thomas Midgley [2]. We have already caused unintended and unpredictable mental health problems when giving people information that they do not fully understand in the cases like genetic counseling [1].

The story I reflect on the most is the story of Thomas Midgley Jr. Thomas was a very determined chemist who was going to find a way to make automobile engines stop make knocking sounds. He was so determined, that he tried every element on the periodic table when he discovered the miracle of triethyl leaded gasoline. Though intentions of progress were harmless, the poisoning of humanity wasn’t. His discovery in 1921 was controversial within the scientific community, and even ignored the surgeon general who wrote him a letter in 1922 stating his concerns. Thomas told the Surgeon General that he had given it, “very serious consideration,” and “no actual experimental data has been taken.” Even writing, “the average street will probably be so free from lead that it will be impossible to detect it or its absorption.”. A stance that later he would regret [2]. Thomas fueled with the desire to right his wrongs and discovered chlorofluorocarbons, CFCs. CFCs ended up being responsible for the hole in the ozone layer that we have just managed to fix.[2] His story is that of an ambitious scientist with the inability to look beyond the discovery and ignoring the concerns of the public and peers. Wide-eyed, ambitious, and wanting to improve the world is a stance that most young scientists can relate to. The mistake of rushing products and science to the public prematurely without proper vetting doesn’t have to keep being repeated. We must slow down and think, because we are already dealing with a rightfully untrusting public. We must remember the public whose bodies have been poisoned by chemicals we put in products, poisoned by DDT from agriculture, and that has been mutilated by castration stemming from ideals taken from our literature. We don’t want to be the Thomas Midgley Juniors of the genomics era.

The Argument for Optimism:

“It is in the admission of ignorance and the admission of uncertainty that there is a hope for the continuous motion of human beings in some direction that doesn’t get confined, permanently blocked, as it has so many times before in various periods in the history of man.”

-Richard Feynman

The modern wave of scientific technology has provided us with many successes that are being buried to the public under a mask of misrepresented literature coupled with click bait articles. Our successes are not celebrated, and our failures are amplified. In the wake of being able to translate our DNA into a data, we have accomplished an understanding of many previously unknown causes chromosomal based syndromes and diseases. We can use the technology to help victims of violent crimes catch their assailants. We can determine a child’s parents and past stories like the lost children, Johnny Dunbar and Bruce Anderson, where two families claimed the found child was theirs, and after genetic testing of the living relatives determined that the little boy was returned to the wrong home and was raised with the wrong family. There is a level of unbiased information that has been able to help exonerate wrongs that our justice system. It is our job to represent our work in what it actually means. We have had promising advances in plant genetics that have allowed us to feed populations that would, and now we are now collecting mass amounts of data on microbiomes from people, the environment, and the sea. We are using statistics, and we aren’t sure to what magnitude environment plays in making us who we are. This needs to be portrayed in our analysis, so we can move forward without the ardent mistrust of our public. We have the future in our hands and are the ones that have to adapt it to our ever changing environment. We can continue to move forward. We will dissect entropy of technology, and we will change our future understanding of disease and life for the better.



[1] Dohony Lindsey, Gustafson Shanna , Ducaine Whitney, and Zakalik Dana (June 2012) Psychological Distress with Direct-to-Consumer Genetic Testing: A Case Report of an Unexpected BRCA Positive Test Result, Journal of Genetic Counseling, 21:3, 399–401

[2] Markowitz, Gerald and Rosner, David. Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 2002

[3] Moghissi, A. Alan; Pei ,Shiqian & Liu ,Yinzuo (2016) Golden rice: scientific, regulatory and public information processes of a genetically modified organism, Critical Reviews in Biotechnology, 36:3, 535-541, DOI: 10.3109/07388551.2014.993586

[4] Morgan, T. H. (1925). Evolution and genetics (2nd ed.). Princeton, NJ, US: Princeton University Press.

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