By John Ross
MEXICO CITY — When President Felipe Calderon strode to the flag-bedecked podium in southern Mexico City last May 11th, at the nadir of the spring swine flu panic, and, under the strictest health protocols, lowered his “tapaboca” (surgical mask) to punch the button that would load “The Mexican Genome” onto the world’s computers, the only thing that seemed to be missing was a military band to strike up the National Anthem.
The human genome is the ordering of genes in a determined set of chromosomes that contain all the genetic and hereditary memory of the human organism, i.e. the history of our DNA. Although distinct genomes have been decoded for racial groupings — European Caucasians, Asians, and Africans — science has never before been assigned to decipher the genome of a national state or nation which is, by definition, a political entity, and many here questioned the existence of a “Mexican Genome.”
Despite the nay sayers, Dr. Gerardo Jimenez, director of the National Institute of Genomic Medicine (INMEGEN), whose scientists did the gene mapping, insists that the 89 deviations from genetic patterns found in other races justifies the national character of the “Mexican Genome.”
Other scientists scoffed at the INMEGEN project. Science writer Julio Munoz Rubio wondered if Calderon’s genome would prompt a genetic explanation for such peculiarly Mexican propensities as “mariachis, tequila, wife-beating, gay-bashing, and racist attitudes towards indigenous peoples.” Would a gene be discovered for electoral fraud and the corruption of public officials, asked one letter-writer to La Jornada, the left daily, pointing out that, according to a government audit, half a million Yanqui dollars appears to have gone missing during the construction of the INMEGEN headquarters in the south of the city.
Calderon’s political opponents also questioned the timing of the announcement of the discovery of the Mexican Genome during a health crisis that had been tainted by his administration’s overreaction to the swine flu pandemic after a six-week delay in alerting the public to the contagion.
The president countered his critics by lauding the cost benefits that the decoding of the Mexican Genome would mean for public health care. Cost effective preventative medicines and treatments could now be delivered to confront the nation’s Number One killers, diabetes and obesity. So-called “personalized” drugs would now be designed to deal with the health problems of the Mexican people. “Super Positive News!” read the crawl on the Univision report about the “Mexican Genome.”
But which Mexicans will be the beneficiaries of this cutting edge science? Mexico is, indeed, many nations. The vast bulk of the population — 80 million out of 103 million people — is of mixed European and indigenous stock (65% of the genetic material identified in the Mexican Genome is listed as “Amerindian”.) On the other hand, Mexico is home to 57 distinct ethnic groups or “peoples” (15 to 20 million, a fifth of all Mexicans) whose genetic make-up is distinct from the Mestizo population.