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Public Struggles With Genetics 101

Survey shows support for disease research, confusion over food modification

SUNDAY, May 27, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Given the stunning pace of genetic research and recent advancements, there's lots of confusion and concern out there about the stuff that makes us what we are and what we're putting into our bodies.

Despite that, however, most people give the thumbs-up to genetic research for preventing disease and starvation.

Those are the findings of "Public Awareness in the Age of Genomics," a nationwide random survey of 1,000 people conducted by the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

The survey found that a surprisingly large percentage of adults have some knowledge of basic genetics, but they are less informed about the extent of recent ground-breaking developments like the Human Genome Project.

Seventy-eight percent of respondents correctly identified a gene as a basic unit of hereditary information, and 50 percent knew genes are composed of DNA.

Yet only 29 percent had heard of the Human Genome Project and only 36 percent had heard, seen or read anything about genetic research in the past three months.

Rob DeSalle, a curator at the museum, attributes such low levels of awareness to the fact that genetics has yet to be linked to a major event or a specific cure.

"I think it's because you don't see these genome guys walking on the moon. People knew about the Manhattan Project [which produced the Atomic Bomb] because of the potential destruction. And they knew about the space program because they could actually see people going into space and walking on the moon," he says.

"Genetics, however, is a much more subtle area. It's so broad that it's hard to bring under a single 'poster child.' I think when something like cancer is cured, that's when it will really get more attention."

Many people were aware, however, of one of the most controversial areas of genetic research -- cloning. And they were less than enthusiastic: Ninety-two percent said they would not approve of cloning to reproduce a favorite person, and 86 percent said they wouldn't support the cloning of a favorite pet.

There were also reservations about genetic tinkering with food, although the respondents did express conditional support in some situations.

Many uneasy about bioengineered foods

Only half reported being somewhat comfortable eating genetically modified food. And only 43 percent of respondents thought it was appropriate to use genetic technology to grow better-tasting food.

But 79 percent were willing to support the genetic engineering of food to prevent starvation.

Genetically altered foods have been treated with genes for reasons that range from promoting resistance to pests to increasing crop yield.

Seventy percent said that, as far as they knew, they had never eaten genetically modified food.

That, however, is a major misconception, DeSalle says.

"Probably everyone in the United States has at one point in time eaten some genetically modified food. The fact is, soy products, canola, corn -- all are potentially genetically modified. And between 40 and 60 percent of all the seed in United States plantings last year were genetically modified," he says.

The conflicting views expressed in the survey about genetically modified foods underscore the widespread confusion about the topic, says Jeffrey Kahn, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

"There's a real disconnect between what people perceive and what is reality in terms of what they consume," Kahn says. "There's also mistrust, and the perception that there are all kinds of secretive things going on with the production of bioengineered food. It really stems from the basic fear of fooling around with nature."

"Some have even dubbed bioengineered foods 'franken-food.' But the fact is, we've been fooling around with nature since Biblical times. It's not new; it's just more precise," he adds.

The strongest support for genetic research came in terms of its potential ability to produce technologies and therapies that would enhance human health and well-being. Ninety-seven percent said they believe the knowledge gained from such research will be used to discover new and effective methods of treating diseases, and 88 percent believe that will enhance the quality of life.

But 92 percent of the respondents also felt that genetic research must be "at least somewhat" regulated.

What To Do

Read these HealthDay stories for more information about genetic research.

To learn more about the Human Genome Project, visit the National Human Genome Research Center.

SOURCES: Interviews with Rob DeSalle, Ph.D., curator, division of Invertebrate Zoology, American Museum of Natural History, New York City; Jeffrey Kahn, Ph.D., director, Center for Bioethics, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis; American Museum of Natural History press release
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