The Map of Ourselves

FRAMINGHAM (07/03/2000) - Last week, the world celebrated the complete mapping of the previously uncharted territory of the human genome. It was an amazing accomplishment, one not possible without computers - and similar to the exploration of space, as described in this week's cover story on the SETI project.

Of course, more than computing horsepower went into the cartography of what scientists are calling "the first draft" of our genetic code.

Human creativity, patience and skill were at the center of it. To those qualities, we give our first acknowledgments and congratulations. But without the computer as the primary tool used to assemble, analyze and annotate what we now know about our genetic realm, we would be like Leif Eriksson's crew on the shores of Newfoundland - explorers hundreds of years from greatness.

Instead, computers have made us like seafarers armed with a compass, a sextant, a sharp-eyed lookout and a state-of-the-art GPS system. We may have a long way to travel with projects like SETI, but with the human genome, we know exactly where we're going and how to get there.

We just don't know what we'll find once we arrive. Will it be a world of cures for many forms of human suffering? Or will it be a place where we diminish individuals and ignore personal privacy? We have time to answer these questions while we continue to pursue the topographical details of our species. Despite our new knowledge and the vast computing power at our disposal, essentially we remain tourists in the genetic universe and must learn far more.

It's important for the U.S. to increase its computing investment in genome mapping. Not for nationalistic reasons, but because, frankly, nowhere else will the pros and cons about the underlying issues be as widely debated and discussed.

Because IT managers are so familiar with the same tools, they can best appreciate the magnitude and implications of the accomplishment of the scientists who conquered the human genome - ahead of schedule and under budget, to boot. You should tip your hats to those who have, for better or worse, achieved something akin to what the first great mapmaker, Ptolemy, did by defining our cosmos. It took 1,400 years before other scientists with better tools got closer to the truth. Let's hope we can reach the ultimate truth much faster than that.

Mark Hall is Computerworld's West Coast editor. You can contact him at mark_hall@computerworld.com.

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