Science's Awesome Frontier

Many readers were excited by the possibilities described in our April 10 cover story, "The Race to Decode the Human Body." "The biotech frontier is our legacy," wrote one reader. "This story should be required reading in high schools," declared another. But some, less sanguine about the biotech revolution, warned against playing God. "If this becomes reality," predicted a naysayer, "the Earth will be teeming with tall, dark, handsome men and blond, beautiful women."

Cracking the Code Your April 10 cover story "The Race to Decode the Human Body" (SOCIETY & THE ARTS), like many of your previous articles about the fascinating field of genetic research, was very insightful. You somehow always manage to simplify this seemingly complicated subject. Most people are unaware of the great promise that biotech holds for the future of mankind--it will influence almost every aspect of human life. Thanks, NEWSWEEK!
Omer Toledano
Kfar Saba, Israel

Whoever is able to harness the power of our genes will become the Bill Gates of DNA. The creation of superintelligent humans or supersoldiers may be right on the horizon. Could scary times be ahead for the human race? Or could humankind be facing a bright future, free of disease, with a chance to live to the ripe age of 200? These are interesting times: I will be watching.
Paul Dale Roberts
Elk Grove, California

There's something fundamentally creepy about even the possibility of genetically determining and cataloging life on our planet. Are we really prepared to strip away the differences that make us each unique and enrich the life experience? Tinkering with human genes, even with the best intentions of improving health, is the first step on a very slippery slope.
Suzann Wright
Seattle, Washington

Your story "A Revolution in Medicine" was fantastic. Informatively, it covered many of the issues involved in genetic testing, including the arguments for and against having it done. My family has Huntington's disease, and when my father was diagnosed, we found out that my five siblings and I would each have a 50-50 chance of getting the illness. Years later when the genetic test was made available, we took it. Two of us do not have the gene; four do. While I'm grateful to God that I have not passed this trait on to my son, I'm heartbroken, watching my sisters and brothers deteriorate. I continue to have hope for the future, though, and articles like yours help.
Suzanne Kengla
Ghent, New York

In "Decoding the Human Body," a Harvard biologist says that once we know the entire code for the human body we will know "what it is to be human." This is like saying we'll appreciate a great work of art when we know all the molecules that make up the paint and canvas. Just as a painting has an immaterial quality that transcends its molecules, humans have an immaterial quality that transcends their genes.
Daniel F. McNeill
Front Royal, Virginia

Congratulations on an excellent article on the human genome and especially on avoiding saying that a genetic code alone "builds" an organism. By balancing your story with Robert Sapolsky's piece "It's Not 'All in the Genes'," you showed the part that environment plays. To demonstrate the relative importance of genetics and the environment, I use the example of a beehive. When a fertilized egg is laid by the queen bee in an ordinary alveolus and the larva is fed with standard food, a small, sterile female, a worker bee, is born. But when an egg with a similar genetic code is laid in a larger alveolus and the larva is fed a special food--the royal jelly--the resulting insect is a queen bee, a larger, fertile female.
Prof. Miguel Mota
Oeiras, Portugal

Congratulations for the story on the future of genetic testing, "A Revolution in Medicine." Rather than the usual portrayal of genetic testing as a direct path to gloom and doom, revealing diseases for which there is no cure or treatment, your article took a fresh, positive approach, discussing diseases such as hereditary hemochromatosis--iron-overload disease--for which there is treatment, as well as prevention strategies.
Sandra Thomas
President, American Hemochromatosis Society
Delray Beach, Florida

Although patenting genes for financial profit may seem appalling, it's necessary to reward biotech companies for the formidable cost, time and effort it takes to make the discovery of these genes possible. What remuneration do these companies get for their work, if their competitors can simply copy their achievements without restriction? The financial incentive motivates companies to develop topnotch technology. Competition is the driving force for progress, and that progress includes the development of drugs that will save lives.
Lucas Koziol
Penngrove, California

Of course genes can be patented. These companies have invested enormous sums of money and work to discover them, so they are obviously the owners. When my next child is born, I'll be happy to pay them royalties. After all, I'm using their genes.
David Vaughn
Dijon, France

The genome project, a big leap for mankind, will lead to newfound knowledge in medical fields. But this knowledge should not be used to design "wonder babies." Parents wanting to select their babies' genes will lead to discrimination. Let's learn to appreciate what we are bestowed with, otherwise we will be in danger of losing our roots. We should not use this technology to create new beings or we'll end up with a Brave New World filled with Frankensteins.
Chua Shi Yun

In your excellent series of articles on the human genome, I'm surprised to see reference to "harelip." Support groups and patients prefer the less pejorative term "cleft lip." That being said, I find NEWSWEEK's coverage of science for the lay person to be excellent.
Andrew J.T. George
Imperial College School of Medicine
London, England

Reading your report on the race to sequence the human DNA, I felt the weight of the words of visionaries like George Orwell and Aldous Huxley who envisioned a future in which man lost everything to an omnipotent world government. According to their imagined accounts, we would lose books, music, individual thought and the right to procreate naturally. A tragic predicament, yes, but not nearly as frightening as the power Big Brother can wield with the knowledge of the human genome in his hands. Your article could have been more appropriately titled "The Road to Gattaca."
Ed Yap
Quezon City, Philippines

Elian's Journey Isn't Over I read your report "The Elian Endgame" (WORLD AFFAIRS, April 10) with great interest and some concern. Whatever one's opinion of the present regime in Cuba, the fact remains that Elian Gonzalez is clearly a Cuban national and is rightly claimed by his father, Juan Miguel. I am surprised that the usually eloquent Vice President Al Gore should attempt to score cheap political points by endorsing certain legislation in order to gain favor with America's Cuban community. A 6-year-old child must not be allowed to become a pawn for either ambitious American politicians or the propaganda of a publicity-seeking Cuban dictator.
Dominic Shelmerdine
London, England

I am disheartened by the protesters in Miami who seek to keep Elian Gonzalez in this country. I think of my own 4-year-old sister and wonder what would happen if my mother decided to renounce her American citizenship and moved to Cuba with her. Would protesters in that country try to kidnap her? Punishing a parent for unpopular political beliefs is a blow to the heart of our democracy. The Florida protesters have accomplished two things by dragging this case out for months. They have given Castro a political and public-relations victory and they have prolonged a little boy's suffering.
Josh Abrams
Brevard, North Carolina

Anti-Castro Cuban-Americans are mocking the laws of the country that adopted them. If they have this much contempt for the oldest constitutional democracy in the world, what kind of a Cuba would they create?
John Walker
Coaldale, Colorado

With the hype over Elian's future, it is forgotten that his world has been totally distorted. After Elian witnessed the tragic loss of his mother and had the agonizing experience of floating in the water for two days, his whole former world totally disappeared, as if it had never existed. As a retired school psychologist, I am particularly concerned that he did not have the opportunity to feel his real loss. Instead he stepped into a world of fun and games in Miami with a never-ending stream of gifts and "love" from people he hardly knew. He needed a period of mourning, preferably with family and peers he knew. The tragic events that befell him can't be removed, but Elian can be helped to return gradually to the real world he once knew and in which he was a healthy and normal child.
Ann Marsico
Plantation, Florida

A pox on all houses involved in the Elian Gonzalez custody battle! Shame on Fidel Castro, whose 41-year-old dictatorship sent Elian's mother on a dangerous freedom flight across ocean waters on an unseaworthy little boat. Shame on the boy's Miami relatives, who have showered him with a conspicuous downpour of consumer goods, paraded him before cameras and thumbed their noses at American immigration law. Shame on both the family's and the government's lawyers, who, no doubt, are securing their careers and financial futures via this tragedy. Shame on the politicians Bush and Gore for injecting his plight into their campaigns. They tremble at the thought of losing the powerful Cuban-American vote. And shame on American society. We opine loftily about the sanctity of the family, but we've kept a 6-year-old from being reunited with his father for more than four months.
James Webster
Galena, Illinois

Courting Trouble I was one of the millions who watched the Rick and Darva debacle on "Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?" ("Wedded Blitz," SOCIETY & THE ARTS, March 6). Their courtship holds the record for the shortest ever among "famous" couples, although Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves ran them a close second more than 400 years ago. Anne arrived in England from Germany on Jan. 1, 1540, and met Henry for the very first time. Five days later, they were married. Like Darva, Henry was quickly disillusioned--by Anne's appearance and by an unrealized political alliance. Six months later, the marriage was annulled.
Elizabeth Van Loan
Bradenton, Florida

The Lure of Cocaine America is missing the point once again. The White House's deputy drug czar Thomas Umberg says "eradication" ("Fighting the New Drug Lords" WORLD AFFAIRS, Feb. 21) and starts off another war abroad. Shouldn't he look in his backyard and try to find out why Americans love cocaine so much? Alejandro Bernal allegedly sold 60 tons of cocaine for months (at three snorts per gram that makes 60 million lines of pure coke per day). The void left by the American way of life is intimately linked to the consumption of cocaine: worship of power and wealth, and contempt for the spiritual aspect of life. Does one need to be a drug czar to figure this out?
Marc Bogerd
Ubud, Bali

The Heart of Darkness After reading your excellent story about the AIDS crisis in Africa, I could not help but be moved ("The Plague Years," SPECIAL REPORT, Jan. 17). I also got the feeling that similar recurring break-your-heart stories from Africa have been around for years. The AIDS crisis is only the symptom of a much larger problem in Africa. Where are the billions of dollars of aid and donations that have, throughout the years, been targeted for Africa? It seems that I have been seeing that sickly poster child all my life. Now we are expected to throw more money into a bottomless pit. What will become of this money? Will that poor kid on the poster see any of it? I don't mind donating the money (and I will), but I would like to see some results. How about some accountability requirements for those who would spend my money? Helping out is OK. Buying gold bathroom faucets and big limos for their countries' leaders is not.
Richard Warmoth
Munich, Germany

As one of those who live and work with AIDS orphans and widows in East and central Africa, I found the article by Ellis Cose, "A Cause That Crosses the Color Line" rather racist. To suggest that the African-American community has a duty to support its kith and kin in Africa simply because we are all black is to trivialize the menace caused by this epidemic on the entire human race. AIDS is not about color and universal solidarity should not be forged along color lines. What Africa and its orphans need is the support of those with "heart," regardless of color.
Judy Langat-Mutahi
Africa Aids Foundation
Nairobi, Kenya