Stop Calling Genes ‘Good’ or ‘Bad’!

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I find it worrying that in The Economist article “A Parthian shot” (February 13th) some genes inherited from Neanderthals are catalogued as ‘bad’. This is a very dangerous and over-simplistic statement, as genes are neither good nor bad. Some variants in genes have been associated to a greater likelihood of developing a disease but even when there is a high risk, it is impossible to predict which individuals develop the disease.

The human genome contains genetic material and whole genes that originated from other species such as viruses and yet these are either silent or have been assimilated to provide an evolutionary advantage. In the light of future technologies such as those that allow editing of genomes, it is critical to make the distinction between risk variants but not whole genes as this may lead to misconceptions such that some genomes are ‘better’ than others.

This would be a dangerous path to follow, reminiscent of tumultuous past eugenic tendencies, which could reappear under the new guise of personal genome improvement. I would thus plea, for the sake of a correct genetic education and the avoidance of potential grave ethical errors, that we only talk about specific variants with a higher risk associated to a condition in certain individuals rather than ‘good’ or ‘bad’ genes.

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