Support materials only that illustrate some possible contexts for exploring Science as a Human Endeavour concepts in relation to Science Understanding content.
Bioinformatics involves the construction, maintenance and use of databases to analyse the relationships in biological data, such as amino acid sequences or nucleotide sequences (ACSBL068). DNA and protein sequences can be mapped and analysed to compare genes within a species or between different species. One example of a bioinformatics project is the Human Genome Project, an international, collaborative research project which resulted in the publication of the full sequence of the human genome in 2003 (ACSBL073). The project was completed ahead of schedule, largely as a result of widespread international cooperation and advances in genomics and computing. The databases associated with the project are freely available via the internet, and this data is used extensively by the international scientific community.
A number of companies have announced that individuals will soon be able to access full genome sequencing for roughly $1000, enabling many more people to identify whether they have gene variants associated with genetic disease (ACSBL071). One potential application of this technology is the sequencing of all babies at birth, in order to enable doctors to identify genetic conditions and structure individualised healthcare, dietary and exercise regimes that will lead to better health. However there is significant concern about the risks in making this data so readily available, and the privacy issues regarding ownership and availability of sequences. Many groups are calling for safeguards to be implemented before whole genome sequencing becomes widespread, including legislation to protect personal privacy, regardless of how the sample was obtained (ACSBL070).
Genetic engineering to insert genes responsible for specific traits into plant and animal DNA is seen by some scientists as the next wave of advancement in agriculture, with the potential to increase crop yields and provide ways to grow crops on degraded lands (ACSBL074). A wide range of transgenic crops is currently on the market, some having been engineered to resist pesticides, insects and disease. Work is also underway on transgenic animals with engineered traits such as faster growth and the ability to produce pharmaceuticals. Critics fear that genetically engineered products are being rushed to market before their effects are fully understood. Concerns include possible health risks to consumers and the long term ecological impact of releasing engineered organisms into the environment, including the effects on non-target organisms, a speeding of the evolution of pesticide-resistant pest species, and the possibility of gene flow from crop species to weed species resulting in the emergence of ‘super weeds’ (ACSBL072).