In Africa, Our Genomes Are Worth Saving


Half of the world’s population—or more than 3 billion people—belong to the teeming African cities of which my government is not responsible. But Africa is a land of powerful engines of wealth yet suffering from food insecurity, social unrest, rural inequality, environmental degradation and many other similar horrors. The same is true for the entire region.

Researchers agree that climate change is the single most important driver of these problems. They also point to the wisdom that a seperate conversation about the environment is linked to and will help address the problems of poverty, environmental degradation and economic backwardness.

The most ambitious tool we currently have to address the problems is the effort known as “synthesis.” This process takes the science of genetics and applies it to uncover the purpose of an organism’s life events.

Even simple biological functions, such as cell division, take place in what we now call a “cell nucleus.” This nucleus assembles various genes to perform key functions.

Scientists are already beginning to study how complex processes in our body can be addressed by such an approach. The answers might not only solve environmental challenges; they might help to ameliorate or reverse diseases.

“We have a strong understanding that every problem has two sources,” Michael Snyder, a biomedical geneticist at the universities of Nebraska and Massachusetts told the New York Times recently.

Are we concerned about life itself? Genetically designed babies with selective superpowers is certainly part of that ambition. But the genomics revolution, or genome editing, also contains the potential to reprogram any of us, even left-handed or blind or obese, into a healthier or wealthier human being. If, for example, that means a genetically modified human being is the best way to turn a diabetic into a diabetic not, or more likely the best way to turn an obese human into a slimmer human, then perhaps it makes sense. And if one day we can cure all human disease, then smart, fat and left-handed humans have just as much right to be free as the right-handers.

In a recent op-ed piece about this process, “Gaining a View of the World through Cell Numbers,” Sebastian P. Hayek called the research into genomics “an effort to not only understand human genetics but ultimately change it as well.” To me, this is essential. It is a promise, a reason, even, to hope for the world.

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