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UCSD Biologist, Author To Speak on Benefits and Ethical Issues Raised by Human-Genome Technology

JANUARY 3, 2001
Media Contact: Kim McDonald (858) 534-7572

Ethan Bier, a professor of biology at the University of California, San Diego will give a public lecture on January 17 at noon at 3500 Pacific Hall on the promises and pitfalls of the future applications of human-genome technology.

Bier, author of Coiled Spring: How Life Begins (Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 2000), which explores advances in the field of developmental biology, will also be available to sign copies of his book beginning at 1 p.m. at the UCSD Bookstore.

In his book, Bier provides the reader with an entree into the field of developmental biology. He also examines the science and politics of such topics as systematic genetic screening, cloned animals, and genetically engineered food. These new technologies represent the progression in the ability of humans to alter both themselves and the organisms that surround them. They are a consequence of dramatic advances in developmental biology, a field that needs to be better understood by the public at large, Bier argues, because of the powerful impact of its technologies on society.

Bier contends that non-scientists need to better understand what society can accomplish with these technologies, learn to balance those activities with alternatives and become engaged in thoughtful discussion and decision-making about the way such discoveries are used.

"As we learn more about how genes control various human traits, it should be possible to select embryos from in vitro fertilization with genes that would produce good health, longevity, or physical prowess-perhaps even appearance, intelligence, and aspects of personality like aggression," he wrote in a recent opinion article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. "Is that what we want? Might we inadvertently reduce the diversity of the human genome in harmful ways-perhaps selecting against genes that protect humans from one disease while increasing our susceptibility to another?"

Bier's talk at UCSD is entitled "The Genome Era: How Should We Use the Eighth Wonder of the World?" It is part of a new series of monthly lectures, called Science Matters, designed to make science more accessible and relevant to the public. A joint venture of UCSD's Division of Biology and UCSD-TV, lectures in the series are aired on UCSD-TV and made available on videotape to teachers in local San Diego-area schools. The series is dedicated to the memory of the late Paul Saltman, a biology professor and former vice chancellor for academic affairs at UCSD who encouraged his colleagues to share the excitement of scientific discovery with the community.

At UCSD, Bier studies signaling pathways between cells and their influence on the growth of the brain and the wings of fruitflies. He earned his doctorate at Harvard University, working with Alan Maxam, who devised the chemical method of DNA sequencing.