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The short, simple human gene map

Humans are complex despite fewer genes than expected, most of them shared with other species.

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Scientists have also found some 200 genes that humans share with bacteria but not with the higher-order worm or fruit fly. That suggests humans have acquired some genes through other mechanisms than direct inheritance, says Waterston. While scientists understand something about how bacteria can directly transfer genes, how humans acquired them remains a mystery, he adds.

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"No doubt the genomic view of our place in nature will be both a source of humility and a blow to the idea of human uniqueness," Svante Paabo of Germany's Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology writes in a separate article in Science. But, he continues, "the realization that one or a few genetic accidents made human history possible will provide us with a whole new set of philosophical challenges to think about."

Human genomic research could also explode popular perceptions about racial differences. For example, the new research suggests that all individuals are 99.99 percent alike. And researchers are finding that the gene pool in Africa, where man is thought to have originated, remains more diverse than in the rest of the world. These findings undermine sweeping notions of differences based on skin color, scientists say.

"It is often the case that two persons who descend from the same part of the world, and look superficially alike, are less related to each other than to persons from other parts of the world who may look very different," Dr. Paabo writes.

The darker side of genetics

But the new science could unwittingly usher in a new era of genetic discrimination. For example, if scientists create diagnostic tests that can determine an individual's predisposition to certain diseases, should that person's insurance company or employer know about it? Many states ban the practice, but no specific national laws exist. And the federal laws that might apply have not yet been tested in the courts.

"Without adequate safeguards, the genetic revolution could mean one step forward for science and two steps backwards for civil rights," write United States Sens. James Jeffords (R) and Tom Daschle (D) in a separate article in this week's Science. "Misuse of genetic information could create a new underclass: the genetically less fortunate."

On Friday, for the first time ever, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued an employer - Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway - for discrimination based on genetic testing.

In a survey of 2,133 employers last year by the American Management Association, seven said they are currently using genetic testing for job applicants or employees, according to Science.

It's not yet clear whether having fewer genes to study - 30,000 instead of, say, 100,000 - will speed up anticipated medical advances. That's because the new science already gives researchers ways to study thousands of genes at a time. The key will be how easily scientists can turn their enhanced understanding into practical applications.

What is clear is that the new approach - looking at systems of genes rather than individual genes - will transform biologists' view of the human body. "Before we were looking through a keyhole," says James Pierce, a professor of genetics at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia. "Now, the door is open."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society