Short answer: Not very.
Biologists are stuck in an unfortunate situation. Most major funding sources in the US come through the government, and it’s essential to stress the impact your research will have on humans. Basic research for the sake of understanding the unknown just isn’t enough to secure funding nowadays. Everything has to be spun to make it appealing to humans since taxpayers are the ones funding the research, and the research needs to seem “justified” in their eyes. Want to study primate microRNAs to study how primates evolved? You better mention how microRNAs are involved in cancer, even if you have no interest in studying that. Want to figure out how spider silk proteins evolved to fulfill different biological tasks? Better mention how spider silk is stronger than Kevlar even though it’s practically impossible to mass produce.
The same is true for human genomics. When the human genome project was first announced, scientists made endless promises about how sequencing the human would lead to immense advances in human health. They had to say that to get funding for this basic research project. Years have passed and we’ve learned a great deal about the human genome, but we still haven’t had the medical revolution we were promised.
Frankly, we probably never will. For most people, getting their genome sequenced is going to be a novelty. You’ll be able to learn about your ancestry, but that’s about it. Sure, you may learn you have a 10% increase in your chance of getting heart disease, but is something that small going to change your diet and exercise routine? Only a tiny fraction of people will have diseases with very high penetrance (likelihood of showing the trait if you have the gene) that can be identified by genomics. And of those diseases, few are going to have preventative treatment or cures.
And right now that knowledge is only available to the very rich, who are more likely to have better preventative health care anyway. Yes, prices of genome sequencing are dropping rapidly, but we’re eons away from every person on the planet being able the afford their genome. Even if they could afford it, it’s not really worth it. The health of people around the world would most improve by increasing exercise and by having clean water and healthy food available. I mean, diarrhea is one of the leading causes of death in developing nations…are they really going to benefit from knowing their exact risk for diabetes? There are more basic problems that we need to fix first.
The field of human genomics is still incredibly important to study in order to learn more about our species and about disease…but it’s not going to be the panacea scientists had to promise in order to receive funding.
(I should add this isn’t just a personal opinion of mine, but one that is frequently voiced by a number of professors and other scientists during various panels I’ve attended)
This is post 23 of 49 of Blogathon. Donate to the Secular Student Alliance here.