Thursday, 4 November 2010

All In Your Genes

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As a child I was told by well-meaning relatives you're got the Ralls thighs or your father's nose. Never sure whether to accept these as compliments or insults, I would ruminate on them in silence. Puberty was an ugly word and these comments would hit hard, often for days on end. Allusions to my appearance made for an ever-growing list of unflattering features. I didn't want to resemble any member of the family. I wanted to be me – a person in my own right and not an amalgamation of others. Now all grown up, my views have altered. I'm fascinated by the person staring back at me from the mirror. What features and traits do I share with that of my common ancestors? Looking through old photographs, the likeness to those on my father's side is uncanny. The family connection undeniable. I ponder the significance of this - do I own my genes or do they in fact own me? Do your genes define who and what you are, and what role might they play in the future?

These are the big questions science challenged itself to decode, and their progress has been duly noted. The human genome successfully mapped, the focus has shifted to genetic profiling and gene therapy. The prospective gold standard of healthcare. Those three letters of potential – DNA, have been much written and spoken about, but are we too quick to assume this is our miracle cure? DNA profiling and gene therapy may eradicate old ailments, but isn't it possible that new mutations will only spring up in their place? A world free of disease is not within our reach. I don't wish anybody ill, but couldn't it be said that disease is also a teacher, a healer, and a controller of population growth? In denying this element of life – a force governed by the law of nature, aren't we saying that disease holds no purpose? I would have to refute this claim.

That said, this new-found intelligence has led to a combined state of awe and pessimism. Nature versus nurture is the classic debate on everybody's lips from scientists and researchers to doctors and psychologists. It has not escaped public attention either, where our genes, it seems, can be held accountable for every imperfection. Like the story of the Emperor's New Clothes, “It's all in my genes” has become the new fashionable excuse. Researchers have discovered genes for this and genes for that - breast cancer, diabetes, smoking and alcohol to name but a few. This predisposition permits us to blame our defective genes and ignore other contributing factors. These are however of equal import. The environment we live in and the lifestyle we lead unlocks the code to our genetic profile. Genes, it is said, can be switched on by diet, pollutants and stress. We are, therefore at fault if we do not take the appropriate measures to help ourselves. Just having the gene does not determine the outcome.

The blueprint to life is a scientific destination. Some mysteries however are best left unravelled. In your genes or not, we can know too much and not always to our advantage. DNA screening may provide clues to our genetic inheritance, but stating those three little words - “I don't know” is often the greater insurance.