‘Genes & Destiny: Are We Doomed to Be’ was a session filled with information about the science of genetics, the sociopolitical implications of the improvements in the field, and the effect it would have on the entire world. The session went in the form of an informative discussion between Jahnavi Phalkey who is the Founding Director of Science Gallery Bengaluru & a documentary filmmaker and Mukund Thattai who has made key contributions in the area of synthetic biology, a field which attempts to combine genes into biological circuits. His most recent work deals with the billion-year-old evolutionary origins of complex compartmentalized cells.
The session took up two books for discussion as the backdrop – ‘She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity’ by Carl Zimmer and ‘Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story’ by Angela Saini.
The discussion began with Mukund raising the question of what Jahnavi thought about books like the ones mentioned above that combines science with the social aspects. Books and literature like these help in “Scripting science back into culture”, in Jahnavi’s words. She said that it is books like these ones that speak to people. She said that a title like ‘She has her mother’s laugh’ could speak in a much better way to everyone when compared to a title that would include talk about atoms and their fission. She went on to say that it is books like these that bring science back into a domain where debate is possible while simultaneously increasing the quality of the debate.
Further on, Mukund went to state some interesting facts from Carl Zimmer’s book, some of which are: the possibility of an infant having 3 parents, the possibility of a gene transfer from the father to the mother through the unborn baby. Jahnavi continued by saying that since the genome has been mapped, it has been found that 99% of the human genome maps on to that of a chimpanzee, 50% of it matches to that of a banana and 25% of it matches to that of a daffodil. Mukund went on to clarify that a gene should be considered as a program and not taken in a way that establishes fierce similarity between the above comparisons. He explained that the uniqueness of each human being stems from how 3 billion bases which form our genes occupy 10 billion different sites.
The discussion went forward as the question ‘what is to be done with the information from our genome?’ came up. Mukund answered stating that the human genome could be used to detect any rare mutations which could lead to adverse diseases. If this mutation were found in an unborn baby and in the future were to lead to a nutritional deficiency, the information could be used to prevent this deficiency by providing supplements for the same from the very early stages. However, he also added that apart from this kind of detection, more information can be obtained from an actual person than their entire genome.
Mukund and Jahnavi further went on to discuss the history of how genes, the concepts of inheritance and heritage were understood and how they changed with time. The discussion touched upon a very interesting subject when Jahnavi posed the possibility of rewriting our genes, now that we were able to read our genome. To this, Mukund started off by explaining how the power of ultrasound to detect the sex of an unborn baby was misused leading to a high number of cases of female feticide and how the society would react if they had the opportunity to say, include a gene which appeared to be very commonly present in Olympic athletes. He considered rewriting genome wrong because one gene could never define a person and because it would only result in loss of diversity, which is responsible for making the population interesting. He ended with the explanation of the moratorium reached where one could alter the genes of cells i.e. of their own body but not of sperms/embryos i.e. the ones which would be passed on to the next generation.
About the Author: Bhargavi Komanduri is a final year student at BITS Pilani, Hyderabad. She has profound admiration for writing, reading, theatre, dance, movies, chocolates and chai. Being a seeker of good art in all shapes, and forms; Bhargavi also strives to be on the creators’ side of creation. Her journey has just begun as she unleashes her poems and thoughts every week. Find her foray into this new found creative spirit, on Medium, here – https://medium.com/@bhargavi2497. She currently writes for Bookstalkist.