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Collins and Venter on Human Germline Engineering

Genetic Crossroads
August 4th, 2000

One impetus behind the last-minute reconciliation between the private

Celera Genomics Corporation and the public Human Genome Project was the
rivals' mutual interest in popular support for genetic science and
technology. An unseemly feud would have marred their effort to present
the "mapping" of the human genome as a noble and high-minded endeavor.

Thus the key scientific figures were also careful to reassure the public
about genetic discrimination, privacy concerns, and other potential threats
posed by emerging genetic technologies. And in a little-noticed AP report,
Celera's Craig Venter and Human Genome Project director Francis Collins
responded to a question about human germline engineering.

Collins' statement was: "There are many safety issues involved in germline
manipulationů.I know of no responsible investigator who wants to go into
the germline because of the real safety and ethical issues." Venter then
commented, "Until we thoroughly understand how this biology works, I don't
know of anyone who would do this work."

Real opposition to human germline engineering by Collins and Venter would
be enormously welcome. Unfortunately, formulations like Venter's are
ambiguous. Will he support "going into the germline" when he decides
that the biology is understood?

Nor are past records like that of Collins reassuring. In 1997, he wrote
an enthusiastic foreword for Playing God?, a book by human germline
engineering advocate Ted Peters (New York: Routledge, 1997). And in
a December 1999 interview, Collins opened the typical "not at this time"
loophole, saying that "for the time being, the focus is not on germline
therapy." See <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/liveonline/health/
healthtalk/health122899.htm
>.


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