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Race in the Genome Age


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Gene: 1. Scientific: Element of germ plasm transmitting hereditary characteristics. 2. Archaic: Embarrassment, uneasiness.

Genome: 1. Complete gene complement of an organism. 2. The full set of genes in an individual.

Race: 1. Biology: An interbreeding subgroup of a species whose individuals are geographically, physiologically or chromosomally distinct from other members of the species. 2. Anthropology: A geographical variation in the human population, identified by a range of genetic characteristics such as hair, skin color or facial features. 3. The three such population groups into which humans have traditionally been classified; i.e., Caucasoid, Mongoloid or Negroid.

Definitions adapted from Webster’s International Dictionary and Academic Press Dictionary of Science and Technology.
(As a journalist who nearly failed 10th-grade biology, I certainly don’t consider myself an expert on genetics.

In fact, what I don’t know about genes leaves me feeling the second definition of gene: “embarrassment, uneasiness.”)

If you want to glimpse San Diego’s future in the Genome Age, behold the myriad reflections of research scientists and fish staring at each other through the glass of a tropical aquarium. It adorns the lobby of the La Jolla Institute of Allergy and Immunology (LIAI), overlooking Interstate 5 at Genesee Avenue. Every day, researchers from California, India, China, South Africa, Brazil, Scotland and Russia—members of the global scientific community—pause to gaze at the amazing sea creatures before disappearing into their laboratories. Every day, exotic fish from the Caribbean, Amazon, Mediterranean and South China Sea stare back at the multihued, many-shaped, two-legged creatures who traipse by in white lab coats.

Consider the view from the aquarium. What does a protein chemist from Scotland look like to a clown fish from Borneo? Only the Loch Ness monster knows.

Yet a visitor to LIAI, where my wife, Dr. Isabelle Rooney, is a researcher (see full disclosure at the end of this article), is provoked to wonder: What marvels of genetic diversity are the varieties of sea life. What marvels of cultural diversity are scientists!

The face of San Diego’s future is strikingly diverse, and nowhere is this more visible than in places like LIAI. The excellence of our research institutions—the University of California at San Diego, Salk Institute, Burnham Institute and Scripps Research, to name just a few—belies fears that our future will be compromised by ethnic diversity. These “aquariums” of biological exploration also are laboratories of cultural cooperation. San Diego now boasts the third-largest concentration of biomedical research in the United States.

This is a good place to be at the dawn of the Genome Age.

This year, two teams of scientists—one academic, the other privately funded—published the first maps of the human genome. The decoding of the human genetic blueprint is the biological event of the new millennium, “the first step in what many biologists say will be a new era of medicine, one in which knowledge of the human genome sequence will enable physicians to recognize and treat disease at its genetic roots,” reports The New York Times.

One of the proud fathers of the Genome Age is Dr. J. Craig Venter of Celera Genomics. The scientific leader of the private research effort was educated at UCSD. In a recent issue of Science, Venter remarked on the amazing genetic similarity between different species. Out of an estimated 30,000 human genes, only 300 genes separate man and mouse. Yet infinite combinations of millions of variations on DNA codes, called “snips,” account for the uniqueness of every human being. (Except identical twins—who, if you ask their mothers, are anything but.)

Why, in the Genome Age, do we still categorize human beings by race?

Nineteenth-century notions of racial “purity” are being challenged by 21st-century discoveries of genetic diversity. The roots of racism lie not in our genes but in our minds.

Crude symbols of race hatred are spray-painted on synagogues, mosques and black churches. But San Diego’s multicultural research community remains a mystery to nonscientists rushing by on the freeway. My own introduction came when Isabelle invited me to an LIAI holiday party, where I was amazed at the international camaraderie. Our table was a mini-smorgasbord: an African-American post-doc from New Orleans with her Scandinavian husband and new baby; a red-headed English scientist married to an Africa-born biologist of Indian descent; a Latin-American lab technician who told Jewish jokes with an Argentine accent. At nearby tables socialized Taiwanese and Chinese, Germans and Jews, Indians and Pakistanis. The mad disco player blared world pop. Filipino swing-dancers collided with ex-hippies from the Sixties; techno-rockers battled with country-western dancers. The founder of the institute was of Japanese descent, and the institute was funded, in part, by the makers of Kirin beer.

Wow! I hadn’t seen such a culturally rich mixture of people outside of Crawford High, the most diverse high school in California. [Editor’s note: See “Race in the Genome Age” by Jonathan Freedman, in Part II of the Diversity & Division series, March.] On reflection, I am amazed that children struggling in an inner-city school and scientists at the top of the intellectual ladder socialize so easily with people of different backgrounds, while ethnically isolated groups in the middle harbor fears of diversity.

In the Genome Age, the top and the bottom meet.

This was not always so in San Diego. “This is a city flush up against the Mexican border that through much of its history has been dominated by a white, Anglo-Saxon elite,” says George Mitrovich, president of the City Club. As recently as the 1950s, parts of La Jolla were off limits to Jews and other minorities, before UCSD insisted that the community provide equal access to housing for professors and students.

The influx of university types helped change that exclusion. As San Diego’s reputation as a major research center grows, a virtual net scoops molecular biologists, immunologists, geneticists and other whozits from universities around the world. Today, 18 percent of scientific and technical employees in the biotech industry are drawn from outside the United States, according to a 2000 San Diego State University study. They may speak different native languages, but all read the universal language of scientific notation.

When I visit Dr. Carl Ware’s molecular biology laboratory at LIAI, I meet scientists from Germany, England, Norway, Japan, Taiwan, Australia, Argentina—and a local subspecies: homo sapiens surfernicus californicus. When the surf’s up, a trio of surfer dudes hit the waves and return, refreshed, to the lab.

“The whole issue of race doesn’t have a position in the scientific community,” says Ware, who proudly describes himself as “mongrel American.” As for working with international scientists, “It’s a delight! It brings the realization of the commonality of intellectual curiosity. The quest for discovery is found in all races, all cultures, irrespective of background. The human community is becoming global. Genetic characteristics and molecular patterns are merging. New diversity is being generated.”

Leo Senderowicz, a Jewish Argentinean of Polish descent, lives in the Sixties tie-dye time warp of Ocean Beach and dates a Japanese computer whiz from Kyoto. “Embrace the differences,” says Leo, who communicates through Jewish humor with a slight Spanish accent. “You’ve got to learn how to speak to foreigners. Articulate your words. Don’t slur or use slang. And learn how to read faces.”

In his previous laboratory, Senderowicz worked for a German scientist. “After what [happened] to Jews in the Holocaust, I grew up with prejudice against Germans, whom I sometimes demonized and associated with Hitler,” Leo confesses. “My German boss destroyed any stereotypes I had. Maybe God put him in my way.”

“America is very free, not strict like Japan,” says Leo’s bench partner, Yada Shinichiro, a physician from Fukuoka, Japan. “I like everything about America except hamburgers.” Between experiments, Yada and Leo keep up a halting dialogue about Japanese food.

“It’s tough to understand some accents, but potlucks are great,” quips Dr. Steve Granger, a California dreamin’ scientist–surfer dude who watches the Internet for the best waves while conducting post-doctoral research. “Everyone has a common denominator of science.”

Aussie scientist Mark Wareing, who arrived six months ago, is enjoying San Diego. He plays rugby on weekends but admits: “The Americans are different.” He finds it easier to make friends with other expatriates.

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