Authors: Bryan Sykes
These stories and others like them make nonsense of any biological basis for racial classifications. What I have related here is only the tip of the iceberg, the clear message from the gene that is the easiest to read. The tens of thousands of other genes in the cell nucleus would echo the same message. We are all a complete mixture; yet at the same time, we are all related. Each gene can trace its own journey to a different common ancestor. This is a quite extraordinary legacy that we have all inherited from the people who lived before us. Our genes did not just appear when we were born. They have been carried to us by millions of individual lives over thousands of generations.
At a recent conference I sat aghast in the audience as patent lawyers and biotechnologists debated the pros and cons of patenting genes. The arguments were legalistic in the extreme. DNA, to the lawyers, was just a chemical. Since it could be artificially synthesized, they argued, why should it not be patented like any other chemical? At one point an enthusiastic manager from a large pharmaceutical company stood up to address the audience. He was summarizing the current position, and illustrated his point with a pie-chart showing the division of ownership of the human genome, the sum total of all human genes, among major corporations. The pie was sliced up and the portions assigned. The financial arguments were impeccable. You could not expect major investment by pharmaceutical companies into genetics unless these investments could be protected by patents. Patents are being filed every day claiming ownership and a commercial monopoly on our genes. As I sat there, I had the overwhelming and very disturbing sensation that parts of me and my past were being bought and sold.
As the presentation continued I reflected on the fact that I was sitting here, in a conference room, at one of the most advanced DNA facilities in the world, while in vast halls on either side, rank upon rank of robotic machines were silently reading the secrets of the genome. An electronic board in the lobby continuously flashed up the DNA sequences as they came off the machines. Before my very eyes the details of the genome that had been hidden for the whole of evolution were marching across the screen. Was this, the reduction of the human condition to a string of chemical letters, the ultimate expression of the Age of Reason that first began to separate our minds from our intuition and to distance us from nature and our ancestors? How ironic that DNA should also be the very instrument that reconnects us to the mysteries of our deep past and enhances rather than diminishes our sense of self.
Not âjust a chemical' after all, but the most precious of gifts.
, Professor of Human Genetics at the University of Oxford, has had a remarkable scientific career. After undertaking medical research into the cause of inherited bone disease, he set out to discover if DNA, the genetic material, could possibly survive in ancient bones. It did, and his was the first report on the recovery of ancient DNA from archaeological bone, published in the journal
in 1989. Since then Professor Sykes has been called in as a leading international authority to examine several high-profile cases, such as the Ice Man, Cheddar Man and the many individuals claiming to be surviving members of the Russian royal family.
Alongside this, he and his research team have over the last ten years compiled by far the most complete DNA family tree of our species yet seen.
He has always emphasized the importance of the individual in shaping our genetic world. The website www.oxfordancestors.com offers people the chance to find out for themselves, from a DNA sample, where they fit in.
As well as a scientist, Bryan Sykes has been a television news reporter and a parliamentary science adviser.