Playing with the building blocks of life

May 31, 2004|By CHRIS COPLEY

If there is a science of the future, it is genetics.

Nanotechnology still is taking baby steps; computers already have affected nearly every aspect of modern society; lasers have limited applications; space science is sexy but horribly expensive. But genetics, with its new tools and mountains of data is a gold mine waiting to happen.

A tool for many purposes

You want to find cures for disease? Genetics is your field. You want to develop crops that produce larger yields or grow in harsh conditions? Go into genetics. You want to clone humans? Breed new species of animals? Design biological weapons?

Yes, genetics is a tool for many kinds of careers, some laudable, some unsavory, some spectacular, many affecting Americans' everyday lives.


"Clearly, we do more and more hard science at the molecular level," said Peggy Curchack, associate director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. "And everything related to the production of genes or the ability to clone are incredibly hot topics and those are not going to go away."

Curchack said advances in research equipment in the past decade have allowed researchers to describe the structure of the entire human genetic code, called the genome. That's 3 billion pairs of genes.

But the genome has no guidebook, no owners manual. All of these genes have a job to do in reproducing a human, but researchers know the purpose of only a handful. Sifting through the mounds of data and matching genes to structures or functions will take lifetimes of work from legions of geneticists.

"All the data from the human genome project - we have a quality and quantity that will continue to fascinate scientists for years," Curchack said. "There will be a tremendously hot market for bench scientists - the scientists who do research. Biotechnology firms, universities, clinical research labs will all use geneticists."

Do you have what it takes?

Philippa Marrack is an investigator with Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a leading funder of biomedical research, which is opening a research lab in Loudon County. She said scientists are not all the same sort of person.

"People with lots of different talents and skills can become scientists," she said. "One of the most misunderstood things about science is that people believe that scientists sit around in their offices and they crab away, or (in) their labs, and they're very solitary kinds of people. But actually, scientists are amongst the most gregarious kinds of people there are - because science is a very interactive business, actually."

Researchers who are also university professors, for instance, collaborate with their students, grad students and postdoctoral students. Plus, lead researchers work alongside technicians and interact with other researchers around the world.

Susanne Haga, a geneticist with The Center for the Advancement of Genomics in Rockville, Md., said students can learn strong skills in many places, not just at the prestigious schools.

"I'm a homegrown scientist," she said. "I went to Western Maryland College and got my advanced degrees at University of Maryland. I work in the (Interstate-270) corridor. It's biotechnology-focused. Basically genetics underlies all of that."

Haga said a college education is a must for those planning a career in genetics. Study life sciences like biology, botany, anatomy, she suggested. And look for internships. Haga double-majored in college in chemistry and biology.

Healthy outlook

Haga said the big mission in genetics these days is to improve human health through understanding the genetic causes of disease. Dr. Reed Pyeritz, as chief of medical genetics division at the school of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, works in that field.

"I take care of people who have genetic conditions," he said. "A lot of that is straightforward doctoring.

"But in the context of conditions that run in families, genetics plays a part. So I counsel them about DNA testing and about the possibility they will have children with an inherited condition."

The daily grind

Genetics is finding applications in many fields, now that the entire human genome has been described and made available for researchers.

Some genetics research may not have an immediate impact, but the time may come.

The laser, for example, when first discovered, was just a curious kind of light beam. But now lasers are central to high speed telecommunications, precise measurement and compact disc players. Some areas of genetics have immediate application. Genetically modified foods are a big draw. Genetically modified tomatoes preserve taste and freshness during shipping from farm to market. Genetically modified soybeans and corn resist common herbicides. One growing market now is "pharma-crops" - crops such as wheat or bananas that contain higher amounts of vitamins or minerals, or drugs that prevent deadly diseases.

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