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Science
LEADING EDGE
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Thursday 21:00-21:30
Leading Edge brings you the latest news from the world of science. Geoff Watts celebrates discoveries as soon as they're being talked about - on the internet, in coffee rooms and bars; often before they're published in journals. And he gets to grips with not just the science, but with the controversies and conversation that surround it.
radioscience@bbc.co.uk
LISTEN AGAINListen 30 min
Listen to 14 March
PRESENTER
GEOFF WATTS
Geoff Watts
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Thursday 14 March 2002
I'm a banana

Can We Blame it on our Genes?

Guests:

Dr Hugh Montgomery
Centre for Cardiovascular Genetics, UCL

Professor Martin Richards
Centre for Family Research, Cambridge University

Did you know that nearly half your genetic material is similar to that of a banana? And that more than 99 per cent of your genes are identical to those of any other human, regardless of their background or appearance? So just how much can we blame our genes for the way we are? That's the question Geoff Watts puts to experts and an audience gathered at London's Science Museum.

In cases of genetic disease such as thalassaemia and cystic fibrosis, genes clearly do take the blame. But it's not always so clear-cut. There may be thousands of genes involved in the complex processes that control blood pressure, cholesterol and which may be implicated in heart disease. But they don't cause it. Other triggers may come from the environment: diet, smoking, exercise and lifestyle. When it come to genetic influences on behaviour, it's even harder to draw conclusions. There do seem to be genes that can predispose to certain behaviour traits, to addictions such as alcoholism and even to a tendency to take risks. But does that mean we should surrender free will and give in to our genes? Most would agree that, while genes may be among the reasons for a behavioural tendency, they are not an excuse.

And how should individuals and society make use of genetic knowledge? Your genes are your most personal inheritance. So should employers and insurance companies have the right to know about them? What if, unknown to you, someone samples your DNA, from a hair or some saliva, and checks your paternity or your risk of disease? And should we be able to choose the genes in our children? At the moment, in Britain, parents can get checks for life-threatening genetic mutations in their unborn babies, and choose an abortion if they don't like what they find. But, with treatments getting better all the time, ask most children with such diseases and they will say that life is preferable to never having been born. And where do you draw the line? Do you abort for a tendency to deafness, asthma, heart disease? Or is it all a slippery slope leading to designer babies selected for social and cosmetic reasons?
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