The Future of ScienceMeera Patel reflects on Dr. Susanne Haga's talk on the potential for gene and genome science in the future.
Perhaps the singular principle adhered to by all scientists is the desire to constantly push the boundaries of technology and innovation. Dr. Susanne Haga, a human geneticist by training, began by speaking in a language we all shared–science. NextStrain, a database of genetic information being used to monitor and track pathogens. Researchers from all around the world can upload datasets, including those for COVID-19. And this data can be accessed by anyone from anywhere at any time. Never has science been so accessible to the public–and so dangerous.
The potential for science–and genomics specifically–is nearly unlimited. Technologies and databases like NextStrain have already allowed us to not only watch and monitor a global pandemic, but track the virus’ every move–track its evolution, every singular change in its genome, every nucleotide shift and polymorphism that appears in a particle smaller than one tenth of a micrometer. And this database is a global collaboration–the result of hundreds of thousands of researchers from around the world working together towards a common goal.
In fact, modern genomics was used to construct a paleogenomic portrait of two Pompeiians that died during the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD. Researchers were able to detect viruses in the genomes of these two people, who had lived nearly 2,000 years ago. More recently, genomics was used to uncover signs of an animal virus in a man who had received a pig’s heart during a transplant. Genomics is already widely used in many fields–organ transplantation involves heavy genetic testing to ensure the donor and recipient are a suitable match and to test for any pathogens that could be present in the donor’s organs. Genetic sequencing is used not only in the doctor’s office, but can also be shipped to your home through the power of companies like 23andMe. It can also be used to detect parts of the COVID-19 genome that might have integrated themselves into your own DNA sequence. Genomics is everywhere–but this is also just the beginning.
Imagine a future in which wooly mammoths roamed the Earth once again. Or a future in which doctors could read your entire genome the moment you walk into a hospital, and tell you exactly what diseases you have, what your risk is for cancer, and even what your fertility looks like. Imagine being able to drive to a clinic where workers can eradicate your sickle cell anemia or change the color of your eyes. With the rapid advance of technologies and data, this future is closer than we might think.
But in the new world of genomics, Dr. Haga warns us, we must exercise caution. If you had the chance, would you really bring back a wooly mammoth? Is it okay to use CRISPR to lose weight or build muscle mass? Is it okay for life insurance companies to discriminate against you and deny you coverage based on your DNA? As the scientists of the future, the scientists who will be leading the genomic revolution, Dr. Haga argues for a set of ethical guidelines to help us conduct research and use the nearly unlimited potential of genomics for good.
The infamous case of Henrietta Lacks is an example of what happens when science loses sight of the people it is supposed to serve–and the consequences of those actions. Or more recently, when a company attempted to patent the hereditary BRCA1 gene, which is well-known to significantly raise an individual’s risk of breast cancer. This meant that no one could study or even test for BRCA1 without the company’s permission. The attempt to patent a gene was eventually struck down by the Supreme Court, but not before it had caused anguish and outrage among the scientific community and the general public. Lessons like these are important because they teach us why ethics are so important in genomics and scientific research more broadly.
As Huang Fellows, we are expected to go on to lead the charge in science and scientific advancement. But Dr. Haga’s talk was particularly important because it reminded us all why we do science and scientific research in the first place. As genomics becomes more and more present in our everyday lives, it is up to us–students, scientists, and the public–to take responsibility and guide the charge forward so that the new wave of science acts not for researchers, not for itself, but for society.
Meera Patel, Huang Fellow ’25
Meera is a sophomore from Charlotte, NC on the pre-med track planning to pursue a Program II major exploring the application of ethics and ethical principles to the biomedical field.