Scientists decode human genome
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JUNE 27, 2000

The Human Genome Project (HGP) announced on Monday that a consortium of 16 research facilities worldwide have essentially decoded the human genome, the genetic blueprint for human life.

In the United States, the project is coordinated by the US Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health.

"Today...marks an historic point in the 100,000-year record of humanity," said J Craig Venter on Monday, president and chief scientific officer at Celera Genomics, a private company which completed its own mapping of the genome along with the HGP.

Initiated in 1990, the HGP's main goal is to identify all of the more than 50,000 genes that make up the human DNA. The particular order, or sequence, of DNA is important because it determines the way humans look, work, and behave.

The great significance of the project has been questioned from its inception by indigenous groups throughout the world. In 1995, a coalition of indigenous organizations adopted a declaration against the project, citing privacy, religious, scientific, cultural, and human rights concerns.

"We urge the international community and the United Nations to participate with Indigenous peoples in developing international policies and conventions which protect all life forms from genetic manipulation and destruction," wrote the signers of the Declaration of Indigenous Peoples of the Western Hemisphere Regarding the Human Genome Diversity Project.

Some of the issues voiced by indigenous peoples are also being raised by others. A poll in this week's issue of Time reports that 75 percent of 1,218 surveyed do not want insurance companies to know their genetic code while 84 percent do not want the government to know.

President Clinton echoed concerns that affect privacy and human rights. On Monday he said that genetic material should never be used to infringe on anyone's privacy or stigmatize or discriminate any individual or group.

"Increasing knowledge of the human genome must never change the basic belief on which our ethics, our government, our society are founded. All of us are created equal, entitled to equal treatment under the law," said Clinton.

Currently, two bills are pending in Congress that address privacy concerns. All but a dozen of states have laws protecting genetic privacy.

Scientists believe their research can help improve diagnosis of disease and aid in earlier detection of genetic predisposition to disease. Discovering the genetic causes of or factors relating to diseases could benefit indigenous populations, many of whom suffer from high rates of diabetes.

Genome research could also help in studying the migration patterns of human populations. The prominent Kennewick Man case has already highlighted differences between the scientific community and tribes in the Northwest, who have opposed DNA testing on the 9,000 year old human remains.

A team of scientists recently began DNA and other tests on Kennewick Man and are expected to complete their research in the coming months.

What do you think of the announcement? Do you think gene research is good or bad for Native peoples? Talk about it in The Talking Circle.

Relevant Links:
The Human Genome Project at the Department of Energy:
The National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institute of Health:
Ethical, Legal, and Social Issues (ELSI) of the Human Genome Project:
Declaration of Indigenous Peoples of the Western Hemisphere Regarding the Human Genome Diversity Project: