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A Big Job for Gene Genies

January 29, 2003

Two Italian scientists have discovered the gene connected to severe migraine headaches, which could be a real relief for millions if it helps counter the bodily mechanism igniting this debilitating pain.

But is this also another step down the path of reluctant realization that no matter how much we try to improve ourselves -- running, walking, swimming, biking, bending, lifting, eating, not eating, not smoking, not chewing -- we're perpetual prisoners of our own genes? That virtually everything in our lives beyond birth has been determined for us before birth? And that all this self- improvement talk and sweat is designed solely to move the stocks of vitamins, health foods and ab machines through the shipping room?

On one level this would be terribly discouraging: We're each on our individual Xtreme-Ride through life, and although each twist and plunge feels new, it's all been laid out and waiting for years. So we should just give up and eat doughnuts, the ones with icing and nuts?

The idea of scientifically tweaking predetermined behavior or traits is most intriguing if it's aimed at the annoying behavior of others. Migrainers could be treated in a lab, bringing relief to them and loved ones caught in their pain radiation zone. But what other annoying afflictions of modern life might be susceptible to gene jiggering?

Could gene therapy cause young drivers with mammoth sound systems blaring for blocks to be considerate, to keep the volume down? It might be asking a lot, but could gene adjustment suddenly create real judgment among those who try to muscle VW-sized suitcases into an airliner's overhead bin? Would a little needle remind cell phone users to turn them off in the theater? Prompt spouses to remember whether toilet seats go up or down? Stop hair from growing beyond a certain length? Or graying? Or calm movie award recipients?

How about grocery shoppers who don't even look for their checkbooks until the last little item is rung up? Could a little goo inserted here or there speed them up a tad? Would gene tinkering among the genus called bank managers suddenly cause them to staff all eight teller slots, even at lunchtime? Could a teenager be treated to hear parental questions as early as the second or third repetition? The possibilities for improving life through better genes is limited only by the imagination of some Italian scientists. All this thinking about annoying things is giving us a migraine. How far away is Italy anyway?

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