'Forget faith, only science can save us now'

By Melanie Gosling Time of article published Jun 6, 2002

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The race is on between the body invaders and humans.

Will the body invaders - the micro-organisms that cause disease - be more successful in their genetic evolution, or will we?

This is one of the many reasons why scientists study the genomes of micro-organisms that cause diseases such as tuberculosis or Aids.

Most people would probably approve of this kind of genetic research, but there are many areas, like cloning and genetic modification of plants and animals, that are controversial.

Next March, these issues will come under the spotlight at a conference in Cape Town organised by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) where the risks and opportunities of research on the human genome will be debated.

Professor Wieland Gevers, deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, said at a media briefing on Thursday that it had been possible in the past few years to work out the genomes of a whole set of disease-causing micro-organisms to which humans were host.

"We get sick because we live in a world full of parasites which are evolving to get better and better at affecting us. It is a kind of arms race in evolutionary theory," he said.

Because of that, a huge amount of effort was going into researching the genomes of organisms like the TB bacteria to better understand how it functioned and therefore how it could be destroyed.

"When the Aids virus enters the body it undergoes accelerated evolution to stay in the body. This evolution happens every time the Aids virus gets into a human body," Gevers said.

Dr Jeffrey Lever said on Thursday that science had expanded at an incredibly rate in the past 150 years and it was now able to answer the kinds of questions which religions had tried to answer in the past.

"Science goes to the heart of what we are as human beings. It's high time we stopped looking at religious leaders to answer the big questions and looked at science instead. Religion can only adapt to what science is saying," Lever said.

He said he was worried that school curricula did not incorporate the excitement of science in the teaching of the subject.

HSRC executive director Wilmot James said there was enormous potential for genetic research in Africa, which could make a big difference to human welfare. But there were also risks involved in some areas of genetic research, such as human cloning. The March conference would look at the pros and cons.

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