AAAS Sarton Memorial Lecture: “The Rise of the Genome: Genetics after the Bomb”

2017 Sarton LectureSusan Lindee (University of Pennsylvania) delivered the 2017 George Sarton Memorial Lecture in the History and Philosophy of Science at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) this past February. She proposed that the use of atomic bombs in Japan in August 1945, and the policy of intensive atmospheric weapons testing that began almost immediately after the war, created a perfect storm of human genetics. Genetic effects of radiation in the offspring of the survivors were the most feared longterm consequences at the time, and radiation risk quickly emerged as a major international concern. Some calculations of global impact predicted genetic damage stretching indefinitely into the future, with many millions of victims. The question of how to calculate genetic risk attracted public funding and highly visible debates. The bomb jump-started genetics with money, publicity, social relevance, and policy importance. It diverted attention from the tragic scandal of the involvement of geneticists in German racial hygiene and in many other eugenics movements around the world—at the very moment when revelations about the Holocaust were emerging. Geneticists suddenly had a new mandate, one that required technical sophistication and public support.

Nuclear weapons testing, she noted, constituted what Bo Jacobs has called a limited nuclear war, not between the Soviet Union and the United States, but rather one between the superpowers and those disadvantaged, impoverished, disempowered people who were vulnerable to testing and nuclear development programs. The nuclear states were all on the same side in this battle—they detonated more than 2000 nuclear weapons that destroyed the lives of people who could not retaliate in kind—in the Marshall Islands, Algeria, Polynesia, and other sites, producing radioactive dust that circled the globe.

For geneticists, the stakes in calculating genetic risk became extraordinarily high. One of the key players was the University of Michigan geneticist James V. Neel (1915-2000) who led the program to study the genetic effects of radiation in the atomic bomb survivors in Japan, under the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission. Neel was an influential field researcher who also played an important role in studies of isolated populations, twins, and consanguinity. He is best remembered today, Lindee pointed out, for his work on the “thrifty gene hypothesis,” a possible evolutionary explanation for worldwide obesity rates, but in his own lifetime he was a critical player in debates about radiation risk. Much of his research was supported by the Atomic Energy Commission. In this, he was joined by many other biologists, geneticists, and scientists of all kind: Radiation justified significant public support for science.

Many geneticists who studied radiation risk worked on flies or mice, and it was in this context that Neel sparred with Nobelist and fly geneticist H.J. Muller (1890-1967). Muller believed that results with flies showed much higher risks than could be detected in human populations. Neel knew that human populations posed difficulties of method, access, and ascertainment, but still believed that international standards for acceptable radiation exposure should be based on what was known about human risk, rather than mice or flies. It was a classic problem of extrapolation.

Geneticists tried to calculate a “doubling” dose for mutations, but in practice they did not know what was being doubled. The effort to assess the natural mutation rate in human populations led to the work with the Xavante and the Yanomami that Neel undertook in South America. It also led, quite directly, to the Human Genome Project.

In the 1980s, a series of meetings oriented around mapping an entire human genome—through which it might finally be possible to track the natural mutation rate—led to discussions at the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission in Hiroshima (it had been renamed and reorganized as the Radiation Effects Research Foundation in 1975) about possible Department of Energy support for a complete mapping project. The computing capabilities developed for the nuclear arms race, and ready for use in DOE labs, became a resource for biological research. And while the DOE plan was taken over by the National Institutes of Health, it began with the atomic bomb, and the frustrations of trying to find genetic effects, effects that all concerned believed to be there, but indecipherable. In 1988 the NIH created an Office of Genome Research and hired James Watson to run it. The genome began to be sold to Congress and the public as a 15-year project that would have tremendous medical benefits and that deserved significant public funding.

Despite decades of research—including significant molecular studies—statistically significant genetic effects in the atomic bomb survivors have never been found.

As Lindee suggested, the atomic bomb made genetics a risk-assessment science. The risk of mutation made sense of large-scale studies of the genome. The importance of atomic energy to economic development justified the research costs. And the technologies developed to carry out genomic mapping were embraced by the biotech industry, leading to a new era of genomic testing. Testing was the low-hanging fruit for the profit sector, and access to the genome produced a new era of genomic testing, rather than an era of genomic healing. Today DNA is often a resource for testing, and not for cures—as in the new race sciences, ancestry testing, the selling of DNA for leisure consumption (“genotainment”) and so on.

What becomes clear in this story of genetics is that the history of path-breaking science is not just about technical details, but also about human lives, that what we know about heredity is as historical as it is technical.

The Sarton Lectures, which began in 1961, are sponsored by the AAAS, by Section L the History and Philosophy of Science in AAAS, and by the HSS. The lectures honor the memory of George Sarton, one of the founders of our profession.