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CNN Today

Scientists Find Humans Have Fewer Genes Than Once Thought

Aired February 12, 2001 - 4:19 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

JOIE CHEN, CNN ANCHOR: The first draft of the book of life is out, and it could eventually lead to extending life, at least as we know it. At a news conference in Washington, researchers gave us a close look at the human genetic code. This video showing you the code mapped out on a chart, not that it does you much good if you're trying to put together a human being.

The human genetic code, though, is the chemical sequence that contains the basic information for building and running a human body. Experts say this information will change our understanding of exactly who it is we are and what we are.

A quick check of the highlights shows that humans have 30,000 genes. That's much fewer than previously thought. Another finding: genetic differences between any two people are relatively small. One of two groups that mapped the code came out with its results five years ahead of schedule. That's because we were simpler than you thought.

Now, that the manual's out, you may want to hear what it means to your health and more likely the health of all of our offspring.

For that, we turn to CNN science correspondent, Ann Kellan -- Ann.

ANN KELLAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Joie, I think there's a little controversy about this. I know that genes are very important. We have 30,000. But what came out today, as you mentioned, there are fewer than we thought. So how much do genes play versus how much does the environment play?

Craig Venter with the Celera Genomics presenting one version of the genome map. He had one version. He says the environment now plays a more important role. How we live our life is key. Let's listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CRAIG VENTER, CELERA GENOMICS: People talk about the criminality genes. We talk about gay genes. We talk about breast cancer genes. And so it's a term that's in common use in our language that people, therefore, wanted there to be a lot of genes in our genetic code to explain all of these different features and functions we have.

Well, it turns out that they're not there. We have far fewer even than I expected.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KELLAN: So what does that mean? Maybe the way we live our life is more important than our -- what we're inheriting and what we're born with.

But Francis Collins, who has the other version of the genome map, the Human Genome Project, he disagrees. He says 30,000 is a lot of genes and there's still a lot that genes can play in that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

FRANCIS COLLINS, DIRECTOR, HUMAN GENOME PROJECT: The one place where I think we have a slightly different interpretation about today's event is whether the gene count being 30,000 instead of 100,000 sheds meaningful light on the role of genetics versus environment. I think the 30,000 is still plenty to account for lots and lots of hereditary contributions.

I think we'll sort that out in terms of hereditary and environment over time. But I'm not sure that 30,000 versus 100,000 really shifts the balance all that much in my view of how disease comes about.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KELLAN: Scientists once thought there were 100,000 genes. Well, the next step will be for them to figure out how all these genes work with each other and how they make the cells manufacture these proteins that basically run all the human functions. And when they figure that out, no matter which side you agree with, they will -- they are both confident it will help in treating and curing diseases.

Back to you, Joie.

CHEN: Ann, the thing that strikes me is that we turn out to be simpler creatures to create than we might have thought. I wonder if it also tells us something, though, about the difference between us as humans and, say, other creatures: monkeys, mice, men. I mean, does it tell us more about where our differences are?

KELLAN: Absolutely. It actually shows us how similar we are, and because we have a lot of -- they call it junk in our DNA -- we don't toss out a lot of the DNA. We actually have the evolution of where we came from. One researcher says you can go back to the time we were fish in our own genetic code and look at all of the letters and figure out how far back we go.

We aren't the center of the universe after all. We're just an evolution -- we're part of the evolutionary chain and very similar. Actually, we have the same amount -- our genome looks similar to that of the dog and other mammals.

CHEN: We're not the center of the universe.

KELLAN: No.

CHEN: That's a great disappointment in that. Ann Kellan from Washington today.

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