Sunday, May 3, 2009

CM PRESS # 683

Story from the LA TIMES today.
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Start up is scheduled for September.
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Possible misuse of DNA data bases.

The last time this was tried in the US, the government wrongly used its power to forcefully sterilize people it believed shouldn't have children.

Now, a new ethical dilemma is coming. The more we learn about genes, the more we realize that they code us for more than just our physical characteristics. Our much vaunted free will, is not as free as many want to believe.

BACKGROUND: There's a lot of confusion about genes. Many people think they are actual things themselves. They are not.

Gene is the name we give to a sequence of DNA letters (A,T,C,G) that occupy a specific location on a chromosome and determine a particular characteristic in an organism. So genes are locations more than things. Mutations occur when the DNA letter sequence is changed. Humans have 20,000 to 30,000 genes (the actual number is still to be determined) made up of billions of the chemicals A,T,C,G all in different sequences spread out on 46 chromosomes. Other living things have different numbers of genes and chromosomes.

Here's an example of such a mutation that gave those carrying it a survival advantage in Europe over others:

Scientists now believe that a tiny mutation in gene slc24a5, located on the long leg of chromosome 15 at position 21.1, started in the few people who left Africa and headed into Europe about 20,000--50,000 years ago was a major factor in making their skin white and thus allowing a greater production of Vitamin D, which in turn prevented rickets.

This mutation became the norm in Europe 5,300 to 12,000 years ago. This gene has primary alleles that differ in only one nucleotide, changing the 111th amino acid from alanine to threonine.
In other words, a mistake in copying happened (that's what a mutation is) that replaced the A with a T in this gene slc24a5 located on the long leg of chromosome 15 at position 21.1 and the result was white people. Usually, such mutations are swallowed back up in the original population and disappear.

In this case, however, the white skin gave a survival advantage and it spread in Europe since those with it didn't get rickets and thus lived longer to breed more like themselves while those without the mutation eventually died off.

In White European descended peoples, the threonine form is found in from 98.7% to 100% of the population while in Africans, East Asians and American Indians from 93% to 100% of the populations have the alanine form.
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