Dr. Michael Morgan
A chat about the future of genetics
January 3, 2000
Morgan joined the chat by telephone from the CNN bureau in London. CNN.com provided a typist for him. The following is an edited transcript of the chat.
Chat Moderator: Welcome Dr. Michael Morgan!
Dr. Michael Morgan: Hi everybody!
Question from Rory: Why was the human genome project started? What is its purpose?
Dr. Michael Morgan: Rory, the project was started really following on from scientific research that began in 1953 or thereabouts following the discovery of the structure of DNA by Crick and Watson, the famous double helix. Given that scientists knew that DNA was the very stuff of life, the material that is passed to children from their parents, and determines in many respects, what they will be as adults, the diseases they might suffer from.
Curiosity and the wish to help alleviate suffering and determine new medicines led to the quest to discover how the genetic information is used by the body. The first stage of that is to determine the sequence of genetic information. The genetic code is really rather like binary code in computers. So it is understanding that code that is so important.
It was started in America as the inspiration of a number of scientists, one of the most important being James Watson, the discoverer of the structure of DNA.
Question from Ajurysta: How do the Gene Therapy efforts currently underway complement the efforts of the Human Genome Project?
Dr. Michael Morgan: The human genome project and the way in which genes are manipulated to attempt gene therapy rely on similar technologies called recombinant DNA. These technologies have been worked out largely in universities over the last 30 years in order to perform gene therapy, we need to understand which gene is involved in the disease we are attempting to cure.
At the moment we only know a little about a small number of the genes involved in disease. At the completion of the HGP, we will know for the first time how many genes a human being contains. And it will be a long time before we know what each of those genes does in the body. So the simple answer to the question is that they are highly complementary processes
Question from Gods-Child: Dr. Morgan, how long until you have all the DNA mapped?
Dr. Michael Morgan: The present time table for the publicly funded Human Genome Project is to provide a working draft which will give us 90% of the genome by Spring this year. As with many large projects, the finishing the process by loose ends are tied up, so to speak, often takes longer than the bulk process.
The present estimate is that the perfect, if you like, gold standard of the genome, which will be 99.99% accurate, will be completed at the end of 2003. Already, 40% of the human genome sequence is available in public databases and can be accessed through the Internet on the www. That total is added to every single day, including today. www.sanger.ac.uk has links to all the databases. www.ebi.ac.uk is another one.
Question from krompo: Mr. Morgan, does it mean that when we will have the 100% we will be able to change any gene in the body?
Dr. Michael Morgan: No, because we don't actually know at the moment how to change any one gene. The technology, in a crude way, in a test tube is available, and fairly sophisticated manipulation of genes can be done on an experimental basis on some animals. Some genes will be very difficult to manipulate because they are very very large. Others, much smaller, might be easier to manipulate. I think the first real likely benefit a sort of gene therapy will come in combating infectious disease when new forms of DNA vaccines will become available.
Question from Gene: Dr. given the advancement of research in this field , do you think that scientists should be more morally responsible for the direction this research should be heading?
Dr. Michael Morgan: I believe the scientists that I know who are working on the international Human genome project, whichever country they are working in, take very seriously the legal, social and ethical issues that flow from this new information.
Very early on, at the outset of the American HGP, for example, Congress decided that 5% of the funding for the project should be used to address these issues. Govt. and international agencies are developing appropriate codes of conduct and regulatory frameworks. And scientists involved in the projects give these their full support and the benefit of their experience.
Question from Will: What is the best alternative about patent rights when the genome project has been completed, should citizens of third world countries such as myself fear if the American government obtains all rights for the patent?
Dr. Michael Morgan: It is a large assumption that the Human Genome will be patented. If it is patented in a way that hinders research then it will be through companies seeking patents, not necessarily just American companies, and certainly not the American Government. And certainly I'm aware that it holds to the same view as the National Institute of Health (NIH), which supports the view that the human genome sequence should be freely available to researchers everywhere.
Question from Mus: How much has the project taught us about introns, and whether or not they may have some important function?
Dr. Michael Morgan: I think the short answer is that at present we have not learned an enormous amount. But it is becoming clear that many intron sequences are conserved through various species, implying that they have function yet to be determined. When we have the whole sequence, it will be feasible to begin to think of the right experiments to really understand the role of introns in detail.
Chat Moderator: Wat will this mean in terms of understanding the human species and how will this process change medicine?
Dr. Michael Morgan: Alongside the sequencing of the Human Genome, many laboratories are sequencing the genomes of other creatures. And that is giving us a fundamental understanding about the evolution of life. So my DNA is 60% identical to the DNA of yeast, and more than 95% identical to the DNA of chimpanzees.
Most importantly, my DNA is 99.9% similar to your DNA. It is that small difference that makes us individuals. And it is that small difference that will be exploited in medicine in the future, when there will be the possibility of understanding for an individual the risks they take for developing for example, diabetes, if they do not adopt a lifestyle that reduces that risk.
Genes interact with our environment, knowing our genes as individuals will give us a chance of ensuring our longest survival in the environment in which we live. So in the future, doctors will treat patients on an individual basis, tailoring their medication to their specific genetic blueprint
Chat Moderator: Thank you Dr. Morgan for joining us today!
Dr. Michael Morgan: Thank you. I hope this has been as enjoyable for you as it has been for me, and informative too. Thank you very much!
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