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October 2000
Vol. 3, No. 8, pp. 46–52.

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Genomic job security

Unless you just came back from vacation on Mars, you are undoubtedly aware that the human genome has been mostly decoded, which means that we now know some 99% of the 3.1 billion nucleotide sequences in the human chromosomes. There have been press events, front-page newspaper and magazine stories, TV pundit reviews, and even the occasional bit of actual learned discussion. However, in many respects it’s laughable how much we don’t know, White House announcements notwithstanding.

One way to view the genome sequencing is as a triumph of robotics and software. After all, without these two engines, there would be no way that we would have all the A, C, G, and T nucleotide sequences lined up row after row in a computer database. But as impressive as that may be, what we have now is the equivalent of knowing the identity of each of the 26 letters of the alphabet. Interesting information, but not particularly informative unto itself. Putting letters together in a pattern that becomes anything like Shakespeare takes a lot more insight than just the ability to recognize the letter A and differentiate it from the letter B.

Now comes the fun part, trying to figure out what it all means. That’s going to keep us, and our children, and their children, employed for a long time. Only now are we beginning to understand the enormity of the enterprise in which we are engaged, and it is nothing less than the changing of our world. But these changes will not come easily or rapidly. Knowledge of the correct nucleotide sequence in a gene is a necessary but by no means sufficient step in therapy. Gathering that knowledge will take both many years and many careers.

One particular fact that strikes me is that these consensus DNA sequences have become stand-ins for the entire human race. Talk about an assumption of homogeneity. Only in the last year or two have major studies begun that will use this wealth of genomic information to compare one person’s DNA with others. And that starts us on the road by which we can decipher which nucleic acid sequence gives an individual brown eyes and which one gives another person a predisposition to prostate cancer.

Mining this mountain of data will keep us all employed for years to come, and one indication of this is Michael Felton’s article, based on the 2000 ACS Comprehensive Salary and Economic Status Survey. As pointed out in the article, demand for pharmaceutical chemists is at an all-time high and unemployment is correspondingly low, undoubtedly a trend that will continue. What I find particularly interesting is that this trend now involves younger chemists, whereas it wasn’t too many years back when recently graduated chemists were having a difficult time finding work. Temporary adjunct appointments, postdocs, and other similar contract work abounded, but not full-time, full-benefit employment. Now all has changed as the economy expands.

In addition to the economic data, Mark Lesney’s article on genetic transportation (i.e., our ability to vector new DNA sequences into genes) notes the technical and ethical difficulties involved in human genetics research. Trying to come to terms with the complex challenges of the genome and the ethics of human subject testing are but two of the many factors that create our prospects of long-term job security in the drug discovery and pharmaceutical industries. And at the same time, all who work in this field are contributing to the overall improvement in the quality of human life. Not bad.

James Ryan

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