Human Genome Work: Another Stage in Science

Interview With Head of an Association of Catholic Physicians

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ROME, FEB. 13, 2001 ( The world´s media have classified the news as one of the greatest advances in history: The description of the human genome is complete and accessible on Internet.

In fact, the work of the private U.S. company Celera Genomics and of the Human Genome Project was published Sunday on the Internet sites of the prestigious journals Science and Nature.

In order to better understand the implications of the decoding of the human genome, ZENIT interviewed professor Domenico Di Virgilio, president of the Italian Association of Catholic Physicians.

–Q: Professor, is this «discovery» as important as alleged?

–Di Virgilio: First of all, we must clarify that it is only a stage in the evolution of science, although it is certainly a very important stage, enthusiastic and exhausting. However, the goal is not so close or, at least, has yet to be reached. To have codified the human genome is something very important, but the fact that the genes are much less numerous than expected is new.

It should be recalled that genes are part of proteins, which greatly influence health and possible illness. The proteins produced by these 30,000 genes are millions and are not totally known. Therefore, it is estimated that it will take 20 to 30 years of work on the part of research to be able to codify all the proteins produced.

–Q: The genetic profile of the human being, as it emerges from this first research data, is far more «essential» than was thought. The final recounting of genes (just over 30,000) is far lower than previous calculations, which only a year ago oscillated between 80,000 and even 120,000. Is this a surprise?

–Di Virgilio: Science is also made up of surprises. Suffice it to think of the fact that many discoveries have taken place almost by accident. However, from our perspective as Catholics, this does not modify the divine plan of an organism — as the human one is — an admirable synthesis of so many factors which result in the human person.

–Q: Some scientists accuse the Church of going against progress.

–Di Virgilio: This is totally false! Many researchers are Catholic and are working to «read,» in the hiding places that nature still holds in store for us, information that God has not wished to keep from men. On the contrary, he has given us the capacity to discover them with our freedom and capabilities.

Therefore, for us Catholics, faith does not put brakes on science, but stimulates it. Something quite different is the position regarding a science without any kind of brakes, which is not at the service of man.

–Q: Some say that this discovery has put a full stop to «genetic determinism.» What do they mean?

–Di Virgilio: It is a full stop, as some believed that everything was determined by our genes and our genetic code. Thus, any pathology or individual somatic characteristic was due exclusively to genes. However, it is not so in reality, and we have known this for a long time.

For example, the environmental impact very much influences the modification of certain genetic tendencies. Some sicknesses, such as diabetes, are the clearest manifestation of the relation that exists between genetic predisposition and environmental impact, which can modify the first. From whence derives, therefore, the value of respect for nature and the responsibility of science at the moment of modifying or manipulating the environment.

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