BUSINESSWEEK ONLINE : AUGUST 30, 1999 ISSUE

As biology's deepest mysteries are finally revealed, medicine will be the first beneficiary. New drugs that conquer alzheimer's disease, vaccines to wipe out AIDS, and crops packing vaccines will be among the fruits of these discoveries

In the first few years of the 21st century, science will finish one of the monumental tasks of all time--deciphering the blueprint of human life. To the intrepid explorers of biology's secrets, the unlocking of genetic codes of many organisms is akin to exploring new planets. ''We had been looking under the lamppost,'' explains parasitologist Michael Gottlieb of the National Institutes of Health, who is mining the genes of the malaria parasite to find new ways of fighting this global scourge. ''Now, we are illuminating everything.''

But this powerful new light is as humbling as it is intoxicating. When Nobel laureate Hamilton O. Smith and genomics pioneer J. Craig Venter finished decoding the first complete sequence of a free-living organism in 1995 (Haemophilus influenzae), they were stunned to find that half of the bug's 2,000 genes were completely unknown to science. Even now, no one knows how the genes work together to make a living organism. If science can't fathom a lowly single-celled microbe, asks Venter, ''how are we going to understand the 80,000 human genes, working together in 10 trillion different combinations?''

GENETIC FLOOD. Eventually, the genome projects will bring a revolution in medicine and biology. But it's not going to happen as fast as many believe. ''Most miracles are going to come from unknown genes and unknown functions that are going to take decades and decades to understand,'' Venter says.

The good news is that researchers are beginning the enormous task of making sense of the flood of new genetic information. Just drop in on the labs at Myriad Genetics Inc. in Salt Lake City. Scientists there are screening hundreds of thousands of proteins to see how they interact and what they do.

The results are full of surprises--and opportunities. While studying a protein capable of suppressing brain tumors, for instance, the Myriad team found that it attaches to a second, scaffold-like protein. That scaffold, in turn, binds to a third protein, which acts like a switch to turn the tumor suppressor on or off. With that discovery, the company has opened the door to a new tactic for fighting cancer--perhaps within about 10 years.

Charting the complex network involving a known gene is plenty difficult. Figuring out the functions for the tens of thousands of unknown genes is even tougher. Botanists have long heralded an age of genetically engineered crops that can survive droughts, for instance, or vegetables engineered to contain vaccines. But before this can happen, botanists must find the right genes to add. And right now, ''we know practically nothing,'' says plant biochemist Hans J. Bohnert of the University of Arizona.

That's why Bohnert and colleagues are disabling, one by one, the genes of a mustard plant called Arabidopsis. Next, they are exposing the plants to a range of different conditions, like drought or high temperatures. If a mutant fails to survive, the scientists can infer that the gene it is missing is vital for those conditions. Already Bohnert's lab has found 2,500 gene sequences linked with the ability to withstand salty environments. Many of them were previously unknown to science--and they may hold keys to the next century's supercrops.

The same ability to discover the secrets of genes will radically change drug development. Thanks to evolution, ''the biochemistry of fruit flies or the worm C. elegans is amazingly similar to that in human diseases,'' explains George A. Scangos, president and CEO of Exelixis Pharmaceuticals Inc., in South San Francisco. Exelixis researchers are creating strains of fruit flies with, say, tumors or diabetes-like defects. Then they mutate thousands of the flies' other genes, searching for those that change the bugs' fate. ''We are able to find genes that restore normalcy and genes that make the defect worse,'' says Scangos. That gives drugmakers whole new targets and approaches for tackling diseases.

As biology's deepest mysteries are finally revealed by the onslaught of 21st century science, medicine will be the first beneficiary. New drugs that conquer Alzheimer's disease or cancer, vaccines to wipe out scourges like malaria and AIDS, and a second green revolution--with crops packing both extra nutrients and drugs--will be among the fruits of these discoveries.

Ultimately, new knowledge brings power to do more than just fight disease. Scientists foresee an ability to manipulate life in ways only dreamed--or feared--before. William A. Haseltine, chairman and CEO of Human Genome Sciences Inc., for instance, believes that by manipulating the body's biochemistry, we will be able to repair and rejuvenate our cells and organs. ''The fountain of youth is likely to be found within our own genes,'' he predicts. ''Cellular replacement may keep us young and healthy forever.''

BIOTECH WIZARDRY. The same biotech wizardry also will allow us to alter evolution. Princeton biologist Lee Silver predicts the creation of superraces genetically enhanced for physical prowess or superior intelligence.

But who will make decisions about how to exploit these new capabilities? How will society as a whole acquire the knowledge and ethical sophistication to make the right choices, when we can barely resolve today's less complex debates about gene-modified plants and animal cloning? Given past human history, it's not clear that we will find the right answers. One of next century's great challenges will be coping with the awesome power that will become ours as we slowly read the surprising stories in our twisting strands of DNA.

By JOHN CAREY

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