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The uses and abuses of genetic science

Review by Phil Gasper | January 16, 2004 | Page 9

DNA, a Windfall Films Production for Thirteen/WNET New York in association with Channel Four. Currently showing on PBS stations.

IN MARCH 1953, Francis Crick and James Watson published their famous paper in the journal Nature that revealed that the structure of DNA--the substance in the cells of all living things that carries genetic information--is a double helix. Crick and Watson's paper arguably announced the most important scientific discovery of the second half of the 20th century.

It was the key to understanding the process of biological inheritance and quickly gave rise to whole new sub-disciplines of biology. The new genetics also had profound medical and technological consequences. These issues are currently being explored in a five-part PBS documentary series called DNA.

Part one, "The Secret of Life," tells the story of how Crick and Watson made their discovery. Remarkably, most of the main protagonists are still alive, the main exception being Rosalind Franklin, a brilliant University of London researcher who died of cancer in 1958. Franklin's work was crucial, but her early death robbed her of the chance of sharing Crick and Watson's Nobel Prize.

Intentionally or not, the program torpedoes the myth of scientists as disinterested inquirers motivated purely by the search for truth. Watson in particular comes across as an unsympathetic character who arguably stole Franklin's unpublished research.

Later programs in the series examine genetic engineering, the Human Genome Project, the genetics of cancer and the future of genetics, including Watson's proposal that genetic knowledge be used for a program of "positive" eugenics intended to "improve" the human race.

If the latter possibility doesn't scare you, it should, as should many of the other applications of contemporary genetics. Knowledge that could be used to benefit humanity is instead being recklessly applied by big corporations to make a profit.

This, of course, is not the way that PBS--which receives funding from many of these corporations--poses the issue. Nevertheless, the series is worth catching for the information it provides on the current state of genetic science, its potential benefits and the way in which it is being abused.

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