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Breaking the Genetic Code

After a massive global scientific effort stretching back ten years, the full map of the human genome has finally been completed and published. The breaking of the genetic code, and the secrets it has now exposed, has already sparked a revolution in human understanding. But this is only just the beginning.

The human genome will change our grasp of human origins, of domestication, of migration and of development. It will teach us about the evolution and basis of racial difference. It will inform us how diseases work and how we can respond and prevent them. It will, simply, change our scientific horizons and, with them, the ethical and legal framework within which we operate.

But what does this mean for Africa?

So am I, by Isaac Nkosinathi KhanyileThe sequencing of the human genome has enormous implications for Africa, in medicine, in law, in history, in sociology and in shifting Africa’s location away from the periphery of modern scientific and cultural development. There is now little doubt that Africa is the cradle of humankind and that the world's population scattered the globe from African origins. There is also little doubt that significant scientific advances will soon be made in the fight against malaria, tuberculosis, pneumonia and even HIV/Aids. These are almost certain to be achieved as a consequence of our understanding of the human genome and will inevitably have a huge impact on African people. It is also likely to throw new light on human kind’s capacity to shape its environment.

But Africa has been left behind before. It is vital, this time round, that the world remembers Africa as it sets out on this epic journey of discovery. It is also crucial that Africa’s scientists, thinkers and ordinary citizens are not just kept abreast, but take a full part in the project. In fact, Africa has already performed a key role in the human genome intiative. South African geneticist Sydney Brenner won the Nobel Prize for Medicine last year for his work in genomics. World-renowned South African scientist Dr Himla Soodyall recently briefed the South African Cabinet about her discoveries concerning human migration patterns based on the tracking of mitochondrial DNA.

Dozens of African scientists are currently engaged in investigating different aspects of the 80,000 cells that collectively define the characteristics and proclivities of every individual on the planet. It is worth adding that the popularization of science and the advancement of scientific research and education are in keeping both with national political priorities and with the agenda of the New Partnership for African Development.

>> Learn more about the African Genome Initiative Cairo Conference 2004

    Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation