Wednesday, August 13, 2003

Playing God with Monsters

Horrified by "There Be Monsters Here" tales, some members of Congress called for a ban on DNA research in the mid '70s. Because those calls were rejected, millions of people around the world can now hope for DNA-based vaccines against AIDS, malaria and other deadly diseases that have destroyed lives, communities and nations.

Here's an illustration: The name of Joseph DeRisi keeps coming up in connection with global epidemics. No, he's not a modern-day Typhoid Mary. Just the opposite. The University of California, San Francisco researcher is using his own custom-built DNA microarrays to look inside the "minds" of some serious serial killers. The "minds" are genes, and his home-brewed gene chips helped solve the SARS mystery earlier this year. Now, DeRisi has chosen malaria as his next victim.

His chips have a way of sweet-talking the nasty parasite's genes into expressing themselves, showing which ones are active when it's brunching on its victim's blood or spreading to other cells. DeRisi found that the secret to malaria's success is its simplicity – regulated by only 10 genes compared with, say, 141 in yeast and more than a thousand in human cells. So, malaria is not the brightest bug in the biosphere, but it does its job with a single-mindedness, turning on each gene just before it's needed – like an assassin pumping his rifle.

As is usually the case with serial killers, malaria's strength is also its weakness. DeRisi tells The New York Times that all you need to do is take out one of the slimy simpleton's regulatory genes, and you'll send it babbling backward toward the evolutionary basement.

The technological breakthrough comes too late for some regions of Africa that are suffering a resurgence of malaria. But reading news of both the breakthrough and the outbreak clarifies for me what could be sacrificed on the altar of precaution if it's not tempered with knowledge that risk can also bring reward.


P.S.: This post has just been Slashdotted, so there is sure to be some lively debate on this subject over there, too. Welcome, Slashdot readers. Come back often!

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