Genetics and the Life Process

December 13, 1967

Report Outline
Recent Advances in Genetic Research
Slow Development of the Life Sciences
Moral Implications of Applied Genetics

Recent Advances in Genetic Research

Recent advances in genetics, a branch of biology that deals with the heredity and variation of organisms, have removed much of the mystery surrounding the origin of life. Scientists have discovered not only the chemical composition and structure of germ plasm but also, in broad outline, the process by which it reproduces itself. The powers inherent in this knowledge, it is widely agreed, are comparable to those let loose by knowledge of nuclear energy. “For the ability to change human life at its genetic source is the power, at its ultimate, to control the character of populations and to change the course of civilization in ways unparalleled in the past. It may well be the most fateful development thus far in all the ages of man.”

Looking far into the future, some scientists have expressed concern lest genetic knowledge be used to degrade rather than improve human life. The ability to alter human genes could lead conceivably to elimination of congenital diseases and malformations, lengthening of the life span, and improvement of intelligence. On the other hand, a totalitarian government might try to create a docile population through genetic tampering. All of the foregoing eventualities are extremely remote at present. But the fact that they are seriously discussed gives some indication of the importance attached to genetic research.

New Knowledge on How Genetic System Works

Biologists possessed only fragmentary knowledge of the genetic process until about a quarter-century ago. It was known that the hereditary elements (genes) of organisms were arranged in linear sequence along chromosomes, which are present in the nucleus of every living cell, but nothing was known about the molecular structure of genetic material. It was long believed that the genes were composed of proteins; “genetic diversity was thus plausible because of the many variations possible for the protein component.” In 1944, however, a trio of biochemists at Rockefeller Institute demonstrated that genes were composed of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). The next step was to determine the structure of the complex DNA molecule. This was accomplished in England in 1953 by Francis H. C. Crick, James D. Watson, and Maurice H. F. Wilkins.

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