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One step forward, one step back

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Let's take one more opportunity to pat ourselves on the back for mapping the human genome.

"One of the most important events in the history of mankind," said Al Gore, a person who we all know is not given to overstatement.

For those of us who are scientifically illiterate, the precise meaning of the genome research project is a tad murky. But the verbiage floating around — "eradicate once-incurable diseases" (Bill Clinton) or "a limitless progression of new medical breakthroughs" (Gore) — seems to suggest that our biotech guys are six months away from curing death.

We are, you know, one heck of a canny species. It's particularly impressive the way we manage to balance things out, matching scientific triumphs on one front with brand-new megathreats on another.

Earlier this month, as the genome-mappers were racing to the finish line, the World Health Organization called a press conference to announce that, due to the misuse of antibiotics, diseases like tuberculosis and malaria are threatening to run amok. Gonorrhea, it warned, has become almost completely resistant to penicillin and has turned into "a potentially life-threatening contagion."

Get the picture? We're going to use the genome map to slow down the aging process so the next generation has the opportunity to live to be 150. Unfortunately, all the diseases we thought were wiped out decades ago will come back in new supercharged form, so everybody succumbs to dysentery at 23.

It turns out that when bacteria get exposed to less-than-overwhelming amounts of antibiotics, evolution goes into overdrive. The weaker germs die off, and the strongest reproduce themselves into new, drug-resistant forms. This happens in underdeveloped countries when poor people try to stretch their allocation of medicine by taking less than the prescribed dosage. It may be happening in the United States because doctors are overprescribing antibiotics for minor ailments, and the livestock industry puts them in feed to make the animals grow faster.

Many of these problems are extremely complicated. But it does seem as if cutting off the antibiotics in the chicken feed might be a simple first step. Thursday in Washington, a handful of legislators tried to amend the Department of Agriculture's budget to make it easier to do just that. Even the sponsors had no hope for success. "Antibiotics is an issue Congress is just beginning to find out about," said Rep. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.

Waiting around for his colleagues to debate a $200,000 grant for research on "international asparagus competitiveness," Brown predicted it would take about five years for the House to really grasp the idea that the antibiotics thing is a serious problem.

"If the Democrats take back the House, I'd be the chairman of the Health Subcommittee, and we'd do hearings," he vowed. Truly, Brown has learned the ways of the congressional timetable. On the one hand, we have our medical shield against virulent disease collapsing. On the other hand, we have: (1) elections and (2) hearings.

The livestock industry has done some amazing things over the past decade or so. Animals are now raised in huge warehouses where they're kept virtually immobile. You have cows bred to give so much milk they practically topple over if left to stand under their own power.

Neither Al Gore nor George W. Bush appears to have taken a position on the antibiotics controversy. Alas, the rigors of political campaigns require that candidates defend practices popular with the farm lobby as part of "a vanishing way of life." Neither Al Gore nor George W. Bush actually appears to have a position on the antibiotics controversy — we're still waiting for Bush to make a statement about the genome map. He's avoided the subject since last January, when he announced, "I worry about people taking the place of God."