The Human Animal


A certain scrubby yew tree, once cleared from forests as useless underbrush, turned out to contain a substance that may fight cancer. The story showed the importance of "biodiversity." The extinction of plant species is more than an aesthetic loss; it also deprives the world of genetic material that may have important human uses.

When the Baltimore Zoo bred a pair of Siberian tiger cubs last summer, genetic diversity again was a consideration. As the numbers of an endangered species of animals wane, the survivors may become too inbred, unable to resist parasites or disease. So parent tigers from Baltimore and the Bronx were carefully selected to broaden the gene pool and reinforce desirable genetic traits.

Human animals, too, have genetic diversity. Eye color and nose shape are obvious examples. Other genetic traits may protect certain populations from heart disease or predispose others to ailments like sickle-cell anemia. And as aboriginal populations in many parts of the world die out or are assimilated into the developed world, useful traits in their gene pools are in danger of disappearing.

The Human Genome Diversity Project addresses this problem. The goal is to collect hair and blood samples from about 400 ethnic groups -- from African Pygmy tribes to the reindeer-hunting Yukaghirs of Siberia. The material would go into a "World Bank of DNA" that might lead medical researchers to new drugs or diagnostic tests.

By comparing subtle differences and similarities in the genetic material of different populations, the project might answer questions about the birthplace of the human species and the routes of its dispersal over the earth's surface.

The Genome Diversity Project is not the Human Genome Project, a $3 billion effort to sequence and map all genes of a representative human. The $23 million Genome Diversity Project seeks to capture ethnic differences at the genetic level.

That raises an obvious danger of the racist interpretation of genetic differences. Other ethical questions include whether and how to compensate the donors of genetic material that contributes to the development of commercial products or processes.

These issues were discussed at a conference in Bethesda earlier this year. They should not rob the Genome Diversity Project of support. The more we learn about the human species, the more we will be able to do for human welfare.

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