The Genome India Project, a collaboration of 20 institutions including the Indian Institute of Science and some IITs, will enable new efficiencies in medicine, agriculture and the life sciences. The first obvious use would be in personalised medicine, anticipating diseases and modulating treatment according to the genome of patients. Several diseases develop through metabolic polymorphisms — the interplay of the environment with multiple genes, which differ across populations. For instance, one group may develop cancers and another may not, depending on the genetically-determined pathways by which they metabolise carcinogens. Cardiovascular disease generally leads to heart attacks in South Asians, but to strokes in most parts of Africa. If such propensities to disease can be mapped to variations across genomes, it is believed public health interventions can be targeted better, and diseases anticipated before they develop. Similar benefits would come to agriculture if there is a better understanding of the genetic basis of susceptibility to blights, rusts and pests. It may become possible to deter them genetically, and reduce dependence on chemicals.
Global science would also benefit from a mapping project in one of the world’s most diverse gene pools, which would provide data useful for the mapping of the spread and migration of a range of life forms in the Old World, from plants to humans. Traversing from the world’s tallest mountain range to warm seas through multiple bio-zones demarcated by climate and terrain, India could provide much information on the interplay of species and genetic groups within them. Eventually, a deeper understanding of ecology could emerge from the material thrown up.
However, some caution must be exercised in the field of human genetics, because the life sciences sometimes stray into unscientific terrain and heighten political bias. The mapping of brain regions to mental functions spun off the utterly unscientific and racist field of phrenology. The work on cranial volume measurements of the physician Samuel Morton — regarded in America as the father of scientific racism— justified slavery before the US Civil War. In India, a nation riven by identity politics and obsessed with the myths of pristine origins and authenticity, scientific work in mapping genetic groups may become grist to the political mill of the unscientific notion of race. Projects in genetics generally extend over long periods of time, which should be used by makers of scientific policy to ensure that the data which emerges is not interpreted for political ends.
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