ISMB 2001, Days 2 & 3: Bioethics and the web

by Lorrie LeJeune

Many of the talks at ISMB 2001 on Monday and Tuesday focused on networks and modeling -- serious science for serious scientists. "Inferring subnetworks from perturbed expression profiles" and "Rich probabalistic models for gene expression" were just two examples. It's fascinating to see the cross-disciplinary side of molecular biology, but I have to admit, the science and math were over my head. Like a well-spread smorgasbord, however, there was still something for everyone in the schedule -- including undereducated molecular biologists like myself. So I attended several sessions on the web's role in research, and on bioethics.

The Web's Role. Bernardo Huberman, a fellow at Hewlett-Packard, director of the Information Dynamics Laboratory at HP, and one of the discoverers of chaos theory, gave a very interesting talk about the phenomenon of the web. As most of us are well aware, the web is a revolution in communication. We can encode data and pass it around the world at essentially no cost. Thanks to the web, bioinformatics is not only a fast-growing discipline, but it is also a remarkably international one. A scientist in the U.S. or Japan with a fast internet connection can now download hundreds of megabytes of data from from a public database in Switzerland in a few minutes for nearly no cost. This was not the case even five to ten years ago.

But the ability to download information and mine databases over the web also raises issues of privacy. At the moment, much of this information is freely available, but should it be? What kinds of uses can DNA and protein sequence data be put to? The answers aren't clear yet.

One of the most interesting concepts I took away from Bernardo's talk was how the theories of cryptography that we now apply to computing may be applied to biology. DNA and proteins are incredibly complex. We only understand a fraction of what they do and how they work, but our cells know how to decipher these complex codes, and synthesize the compounds to keep our bodies running.

Bioethics. Later in the day on Monday I attended a workshop on bioethics and "fiction science" organized by Pierre Baldi from U.C. Irvine. Fiction science, in Pierre's words, is "the rational extension of current technology." What happens if you extend an idea such as cloning through a rational pathway? You enter the realm of bioethics.

We've passed a number of thresholds in the last few years and are on our pay to passing several more. In two decades (if Moore's law holds) we'll have computers that exceed the capacity of the human brain. This will shatter our notions of artificial intelligence.

Though we've been tinkering with evolution and genetics for generations, we now have the capacity to clone ourselves, to produce babies in vitro, to "operate" on proteins, and genomes as if they were software, and put DNA from one species into another. For example, scientists have inserted a gene from fireflies into tobacco to produce a plant that glows in the dark. The results of this sort of genetic tinkering may be very beneficial -- perhaps a cure for cancer will be found. Perhaps not.

What are the issues of identity if you clone someone? How would you feel if you entered a room with a thousand clones of yourself? Who should be allowed to clone whom? Should we limit how many times a genome can be cloned? The panel of scientists at this workshop explored many questions, and as you might have guessed, there were no answers.

The ramifications of this session, and bioethics in general, are too large and too complex to sum up as I stand here typing at one of the conference terminals. I'll need to think about them and do some research before I feel confident enough to speculate more deeply on what I heard.

Many people attended this session and expressed concern about how scientists in general should approach these issues. I was relieved to see that researchers in molecular biology are as worried about the outcome of cloning and stem cell research as any other member of the general public. Hopefully, those worries will drive them to continue exploring ethics and morality as fiction science becomes reality science.