When future generations reflect upon this current era of human history and development, it is almost certain that the birth and advancement of bioinformatics will be among the most awe-inspiring of topics. Bioinformatics is the field of study which is concerned with the storage, retrieval, and analysis of biological data via the tools of informatics. The two major objectives of bioinformatics (as identified by -new avenues-p9) are the identification of genes and the prediction of their function. Bioinformatics therefore shares an intimate relationship with the field of functional genomics, which is defined by Alberts as “the field of study which aims to understand the ways in which cells execute and control the great number of operations required for normal function, and those in which cellular systems fail in disease”(1996).
In order to produce results that offer a better understanding of biological systems, a link must be made between the genomic scale and the scale of the biological system in question. This requires computational and formal methods to process massive amounts of data, understand general principles that govern the system, and make predictions about system behavior (Scmulevich,Dougherty, and Zhang,2002). As the size and complexity of the data to be implemented grows telescopically (due to advancements in areas such as gene expression, mass spectrometry, and protein-protein interactions), the need for massive comprehensive databases with fluid global access (deemed “knowledgebases” by Manuela Pruess (p43,New Avenues.)) has become apparent. What separates these new proposed knowledgebases from other types of databases is the power which stems from the cross-referencing of data from researchers all over the world of various disciplines (medicine, biophysics, biochemistry, ecology, molecular biology, genomics, computer science, etc.) and of various forms (bibliographic, sequence, structure, and taxonomy) in a manner which is easily recognized and implemented by computer and human alike.
Although the potential for social good (i.e. advances in health and environmental science) which the constructions of these knowlegebases offer is incalculable, the digitization and implementation of information on human beings presents a great number ethical dilemmas which must be confronted before proceeding. In the following essay, I will discuss a few of the most pressing moral issues which knowlegebase construction necessarily presents. These include the issues of confidentiality, privacy, ownership of self, intellectual property rights, and global governance of new biotechnologies.
Although increases in the fluidity and cross-referenceability of biological data are necessary for the advancement of bioinformatics, it also raises many complex ethical issues involving confidentiality. Because personal records (such as medical, genetic, lifestyle, etc.) may be easily connected with one another in...