Genes & Human Life

Author: Jerome Lejeune

ALL About Issues Fall 1991

GENES & HUMAN LIFE by Professor Jerome Lejeune

Testimony given to the Louisiana State Legislature on June 7, 1990 . Reprinted with permission from the January 1991 HLI Reports.

Curiously, Mr. Chairman, the natural sciences and the science of jurisprudence are speaking roughly the same language. Before you can enact a Constitution, you have to spell out each of its terms. And then you have to get it voted on. Man's natural Constitution, too, must be spelled out in all its terms. We call them genes, and they are carried by chromosomes. There is also a voting process which is fertilization. Only about one in a billion sperm will be elected to produce this new set of information. Once the head of the sperm has gone inside the zona pellucida, which is a kind of plastic bag which protects the private life of the early human being, there comes a moment when a new human constitution is voted for and enacted.

Roe v. Wade said that because nobody can really know at what moment human life begins, we are free to decide such and such. Since then 17 years have elapsed, and science has made vertiginous progress. I'm going to tell you how much more we know now about the beginning of the human person than we knew 17 years ago.

Life has a very, very long story. It has been transmitted for millennia inside the human race. But each of us has a very precise starting moment, which is the time at which the whole necessary and sufficient genetic information is gathered inside one cell, the fertilized egg, and this moment is the moment of fertilization. There is not the slightest doubt about that.

We know that this information is written on a kind of ribbon which we call DNA. It's a long molecule on which, under a specific code, all the qualities of the future person are defined. It measures exactly one meter in length inside the sperm, split into 23 little bits inside the chromosomes, and one meter inside the ovum; so that at the beginning of our life, we have two meters of ribbon, so to speak, on which everything is coded. To help you understand the miniaturization of these tablets of the law of life, this meter-long molecule is coiled so tightly that it fits easily on the point of a needle. Life is written in a fantastically miniaturized language.

At the time of Roe v. Wade, we knew that the information was inside the first cell, but nobody was able to read it, and nobody was able to say how it was going to express itself, so that the information would finally become a living thing telling us, "I am a man."

Today we know that life is very similar to what happens with a magnetic tape on which music has been recorded. On the tape itself there are no notes. In the tape recorder there are no musicians, no instruments. Nevertheless, because the information has been coded at the moment it was received by a microphone and then transmitted to the tape, the player/recorder can read it again and give some movement to loud speakers, so that what is reproduced for you is not the musicians, nor the notes of the score. What is transmitted to you, if you are listening to "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik," is the genius of Mozart.

In exactly the same way, the symphony of life is played. It is written in a very special code on DNA, and the first cell is the first part of the magnetic reading machine, so that it will decipher the code and play human life. If the information which is inside the tape recorder, which is that first cell, is human information, then this being is a human being. We know that at the beginning there is a message, and this message, if it is spelled out in the human way, makes what is a human.

We have to realize that matter is just matter. But matter can be animated by a given information which gives form to the matter, and which allows the building of a self.

Now, depending on whether you are a music lover or a newcomer, you will be quicker or slower to recognize that you have to put a cassette of "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" in your player. If you are really a music lover, you will recognize it by the second bar. If you are a newcomer, you will need to have the whole tape played before you can say, "Now I know how the Kleine Nachtmusik goes." The advantage of genetics is that science is a life lover; we understand what life is as soon as the first bars are played.

This notion of information is not wishful thinking. It's not a meta- physical hypothesis. It's plain science. Those who do not wish to face its implications often say that life is purely a dynamic, a movement which continues. Well, we can freeze early human embryos. As we lower the temperature, we slow down time; and when we get very deep into the freeze, time is suspended. But the human beings which have been frozen are not dead; if we give them back a normal temperature, they will continue again. They will regain their own autonomy and begin again to be themselves. So we know that we have interrupted the dynamic, the movement; but if we have not destroyed the information, life can start again.

Seventeen years ago we could not tell anything about the content of the first cell. If we looked at what was inside it, at the genetic message which was coded inside, we killed that cell. It was the same with the very young embryo. For the human embryo of a day, two days, a week of age, it was impossible to look at him and see whether this embryo had such-and- such a quality without destroying the embryo, because of the invasiveness of the technique.

Now an extraordinary discovery was made four years ago and has been used in laboratories for two years. From an embryo at three days of age who has possibly four or eight cells, we can very carefully take one of these cells, puncturing the zona pellucida with a tiny hole and removing it, then closing the hole. Then from the cell, with a new technique called PCR, that is "chain polymerization," we can reproduce the DNA which was in that unique cell and have enough of that DNA to make an analysis of it. With this technique, we can reproduce from one molecule of DNA millions of copies of the same molecule in just 24 hours. It's quite miraculous because it works faster than life but is just using tricks that life itself uses, that is, using a special enzyme and a special cycle which are normally used in life.

Less than three months ago it was published in England by Monk and Holding that, working on human embryos produced in vitro, they were able to remove one cell of those embryos, have the DNA of that cell polymerized, look at the DNA with a special probe, and determine whether those tiny embryos were male or female.

So even in an embryo a week old, with those new techniques, we can say already, "It's a man" or "a woman." It passes our imagination that lawyers knowing suddenly that this embryo a week old is a guy, or a girl, would not recognize at the same time that it is a human person.

A SECOND discovery which changed our way of looking at human genetic makeup in the last two years was made by another English colleague, Jeffries. Jeffries is an extraordinary specialist in DNA, who suddenly had the ingenious idea that there are long stretches of the genetic message which are just regulating the cells. Because of that particular function, they can withstand a lot of very small changes without any danger to the individual. Thus each of us, in the regulation part of our genetic system, has a very peculiar array of genes which are all of them entirely normal. By taking one cell and using PCR, Jeffries was able to make many copies of this part of the message, so as to plot the information in a new form.

Now, what it looks like is very interesting. The DNA specific to each person, after we have used the whole technique, will look like a little succession of strips-lines of various widths at various distances, giving a distinctive pattern for each human being. It looks very much like the bar- code that you are familiar with in the supermarket. You know, instead of the price tag on which the name and the price are written in letters, they are using bars of various widths, various distances from each other; and if you read that with a scanning system, the computer in the supermarket knows exactly what product you are buying and at what price. This is exactly what we can do now with every human being looking at his or her DNA. We can have a bar-code which is absolutely specific to each of us.

If fact, if we compare the bar-code of a person to the bar-codes of the father and mother, we can recognize that in all the lines which are specific to this person, half of those lines are found in father, half of them are found in mother; so that the absolute definition of heredity can be given, and we can know with less than once chance in 10 billion of error that this person is the biological descendant of this father and this mother.

This is especially important in a case where paternity has to be checked. We can detect beyond any possible doubt who is the biological father, and instead of looking at this baby as a criminal who should be ejected by abortion, society should recognize this baby as a human being. We know her mother and her father, and a human being who has an unworthy father should become the concern of the nation, not the victim of the nation.

Jeffries found that the genetic message carried by the sperm is differently underlined from the genetic message carried by the ovum. When you are studying something and reading a book, very often you take a pencil and underline some sequence that you find you must remember; it's very important. But, sometimes you just make an X on another passage, because it's not needed immediately. That's exactly what nature is doing on the whole genetic message.

You remember it was one meter long, but I've forgotten to tell you that the letters written on that one meter amount to five times the Encyclopaedia Britannica. That is, to print each name of all the bases which are inside our genetic code, we would need five sets of volumes the size of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. So, you understand why it's very wise that nature underlines some sequences, because those have to be deciphered immediately by the first cell, while putting an X on others, which are to be used much later in life. The cell cannot do everything at the same moment. It has to start somewhere.

Now another discovery is that males are underlining one part of the message, and females a different part, and the result explains two mysteries of genetics. We already know that sometimes after a normal intercourse there is a pregnancy with no baby inside, which is called a clear pregnancy. Sometimes it makes a "molar degeneration," and it's very dangerous because it can make a cancer. It was discovered around ten years ago that when this molar degeneration is occurring, there are only membranes formed, and their whole genetic makeup is from the father. The opposite situation is also known. Sometimes in a young virgin girl, one of the ovaries has an egg which divides to make a teratoma. In this teratoma, you can find something like skin, nails, hair, teeth. It's called a "dermoid cyst," but there is nothing looking like a baby. It only makes spare parts.

Now the discovery is that the underlining of the male message tells the first cell how to build the membrane which will protect the baby and how to build the placenta which will take the supplies from the blood of the mother; so that, in effect, the man has in the first cell, transmitted to the baby the masculine duty to gather the food and to build the shelter, to build the hut and go hunting. On the contrary, the female message is to teach how to make the different parts which must be assembled to make a baby. It's very extraordinary to see that the division of labor which we find among grown-ups is already written in the miniaturized language of genetics in the first cell a millimeter-and-a-half wide, which is the epitome, the summary, the reduction to the smallest expression of the human person.

WHEN you look at development, this way of underlining is changing at each division of the cell. The first cell transmits the message with some of the underlining erased, so that the new cells begin to read other parts. As a result, life is very much akin to the professional development of an M.D. You have probably noticed that in Medicine, when you go out of the university, you become either a generalist or a specialist. A generalist is learning about many, many diseases, and as the years go by, he knows less and less about more and more; when he's a very good generalist, he knows next to nothing about everything. The specialists do the contrary. They learn more and more about less and less, and at the very end, a good specialist knows everything about next to nothing. That's the way nature is playing the human message.

The first cell is the generalist. She cannot express many things, but she knows something about everything. She tells how to build a machine which would finally build the brain. But the reason this first cell that knows everything has to have specialists is so that the specialist can express her own personality; she has to specialize so that one cell will make nails, another a nervous system, and finally the whole will make a human being.

If I had to summarize, Mr. Chairman, what science tells us, I would say beyond any doubt: we know that at the beginning there is a message. This genetic message is in life, and the expression of this genetic message is life. To be even shorter, I would say that beyond any discussion, if the message is a human message, the being is a human being.

Professor Jerome Lejeune, Professor of Fundamental Genetics for the University of Paris, is one of the world's foremost authorities on genetic and prenatal sciences. He is also the Director of Genetic Consultation for the Hospital for Infant Diseases in Paris and a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences

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