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For the non-scientist, the announcement Thursday that a team of Harvard biochemists have artifically reproduced a mammalian gene for the first time was difficult to place in context.
What exactly does this mean? Is it an earth-shattering breakthrough, the final step towards a "Brave New World? Or is it just one more intermediary advancement in genetics research that in itself is no great shakes?
The answer, quite naturally, lies somewhere in between. In synthesizing the gene that makes hemoglobin in rabbits, Thomas Maniatis, assistant professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology; Fotis Kafatos, professor of Biology; Argiris Efstraiadis, doctor candidate in Biology; and Allan Maxam, research assistant in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology have carried science closer to being able to understand how genes express themselves in higher organisms.
On the other hand, the research by the Harvard team basically adds to reseaach done by a number of other teams at the National Institute of Health and several universities. Bacterial genes were chemically synthesized in 1973 by an MIT team led by Har Gobind Khorana; Nobel Prize Winners Dr. Howard Temin at the University of Wisconsin and David Baltimore at MIT first discovered the enzyme--reverse transcriptase--that was a keystone in the Harvard research; and three research groups--including one led by Baltimore--simultaneously produced one of DNA's two strands in 1972.
Essentially, the Harvard team was able to "put down" the second strand. Several scientists who worked on the 1972 teams expressed surprise yesterday that the Harvard group had decided to announce its findings with a press release, intimating that such an action may senseationalize the actual significance of the research.
"Frankly, I'm surprised that they would issue press releases about this," Dr. Phil Leder, chief of the Lab of Molecular Genetics at NIH and the head of the first team to publish the 1972 results in a scientific journal, said yesterday. "I guess we could have called a press conference when we made the single strand globin sequence in 1972, but we didn't think of it."
As it turns out, the Harvard team did not directly release its achievements to the press. Instead, Fred Hapgood, a reporter for the Harvard News Office who covers science at Harvard, heard about the research and the News Office decided to issue a release after Hapgood wrote a story for the Gazette.
In the end, the real significance of the work done by the Harvard team will probably prove to be the new lab techniques it developed in order to complete the synthesizing process for a mammalian gene. While Khorana was able to synthesize chemically a bacteria gene, the extremely complicated structure of mammalian genes make the process he used too difficult and lengthy for building mammalian genes.
The simplicity of the technique the Harvard team has developed for synthesizing an entire strand of DNA from RNA now means that scientists may be able to focus more on studying the actual process of how genes regulate protein assembly in higher organisms. Thus, while the Harvard research will not carry mankind into a new era of artificially reproduced beings, it certainly is an important step towards an untimate understanding of human genetics.
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