Limits of Gene Science
Los Angeles Times, 4/22/00

     Two sets of DNA tests released this week--one implicating a suspect in a serial killing case, the other proving that Louis XVII, the boy king of France, did indeed die in a drafty prison--demonstrate the increasingly formidable sleuthing powers of genetic science. Not everyone, however, is celebrating.

     No one disputes the social value of the DNA tests that earlier this week tied Robert Lee Yates Jr., a 47-year-old factory worker from Spokane, Wash., to 12 murders over two decades. Some romantic-minded historians, however, are lamenting Wednesday's announcement of DNA tests showing that a disease-riddled 10-year-old who died in a prison cell in 1795 was indeed the son of French King Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antoinette. The tests, which matched DNA in the boy's preserved heart tissue with DNA from Antoinette's hair, clarify some historical facts but also dash rollicking historical speculations that the child had actually been spirited away after his parents were sent to the guillotine. In one tale, from Mark Twain's 1884 novel "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," the young heir reappears as an itinerant con artist in America.

     Some historians actually worry that gene science will one day upstage their art, substituting dry scientific accounts for rich classical history. Their fears are premature. Genetics is still a science in its infancy, able to generate facts but not to interpret them.

     True, gene scientists can seem anything but humble. Hundreds of start-up biotech companies are now promising investors that they will be able to accomplish great feats, using DNA research to cure disease, improve agricultural technologies and meet other pressing social needs.

     Earlier this year a British biotechnology start-up called Genostic Pharma even filed a patent application for a gene testing device that it said could detect markers for human behavior traits and intelligence. It went so far as to claim that its device, called a DNA chip, could help businesses "select applicants for employment."

     This is bluster. A complex trait like personality cannot be reduced to genetic markers. Ultimately, Genostic's patent application has raised more disturbing social questions, like whether employers should have access to employees' DNA, than it has answered.

     A more balanced sense of gene science is provided by Celera Genomics' release earlier this month of the genome of the fruit fly. Celera's gene map is a big achievement; it is already helping researchers identify DNA sequences that could predispose all living creatures to disease. But the map was still just a list of chemical sequences, and an imperfect one at that. Last week, federal gene researchers discovered that Celera had erroneously mixed human DNA into the fly genome.

     Genetics, not nearly as advanced a science as its more breathless proponents claim, is no threat to other academic disciplines. But its power to solve some straightforward mysteries is increasingly indisputable.