November 19, 2007
Wired Magazine Issue 15.12: Welcome to The Age of Genomics.
Wired Magazine’s website features several articles from the December 2007 issue about the new era of genome research: Genomics. The feature story is about the company 23andMe who will decode your genes for $1,000 US. Here’s the link to 23andMe’s site.
In addition, Wired has several related articles including a genome timeline, information about the writer’s genome, an open-source genetic engineering kit in development, and news of a genetic non-discrimination bill.
A closer look at yourself. Really. The process sounds simple enough: Order a sample kit, spit into the vial, send it back, they scan it, calculate your genetic risk factors, and they’ll let you log into their site to see what they’ve found. It makes for an interesting way to discover what your chromosomes say about what you are… and what may happen to you in the future. Currently, the cost and technology only gives you a strategic genotyping scan of 500,000 of your 3 billion base-pairs, but the results can affect your future in ways you may not (yet) realize.
What cancers will you get? Will you succumb to Alzheimer’s? Are you resistant to AIDS, bird flu, or high cholesterol? How long will you live? Will you develop the ability to fart lasers? Are you a woman trapped in a man’s body?
These type of genetic questions are what the curious-about-themselves would like to answer. Unfortunately, they’re not the only ones who would like to “know more about you.”
Enter the Health Gestapo… and Genetic Discrimination. The results of your genetic scan can be beneficial by creating specialized drugs that can work with your genes to make you healthy. There can be some not-so-beneficial problems arising from the results. Health insurance carriers may insist on having genotyping done before insuring someone… unless they are forced to pay for it, but what the insurers can save by not insuring “genetically defective” people can offset those costs.
That can lead to the problem of genetic discrimination, the segregation of people due their genotypes. Imagine entire populations being denied health care because of “bad genes,” only allowing those with “good genes” to grow healthy and strong and reproduce. [”Master Race” and Nazi genetic experiment reference goes here.] There is a genetic nondiscrimination bill in Congress to prevent such crap, but it is being held up in Senate by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahama) who claims it leaves employers vulnerable to liability:
An internal memo obtained Thursday from Coburn’s office said the senator’s make-or-break objection was the possibility that an employer who provides health insurance for its workers could be sued both as an insurer and as an employer. That means employers could be hit for much higher damages than insurers.
Another major problem: What if your genetic information falls into the wrong hands? Could they use that information against you? After all, DNA can be described as very personal information:
Wojcicki (one of the founders of 23andMe) is onto something when she describes our genome as simply information. Already, we calibrate our health status in any number of ways, every day. We go to the drugstore and buy an HIV test or a pregnancy test. We take our blood pressure, track our cholesterol, count our calories. Our genome is now just one more metric at our disposal. It is one more factor revealed, an instrument suddenly within reach that can help us examine, and perhaps improve, our lives.
Unfortunately, Google and Microsoft want that metric in their databases as they are now competing in tracing your medical history… and genome. 23andMe is partially funded by Google, who invested some $3.9 million for the start-up. In case you haven’t heard, Google was reported as having “comprehensive consumer surveillance and entrenched hostility to privacy.”
How to trade your bad genes for good ones. From the Wired article Genetic-Engineering Competitors Create Modular DNA Dev Kit:
College and high school students are helping MIT scientists develop an open source development kit for biological systems that could do for cells what Linux has done for computers.
As part of the International Genetically Engineered Machines competition held in Cambridge, Massachusetts, last week, Peking University students created tiny assembly lines out of bacteria. Their entry, “Towards a Self-Differentiated Bacterial Assembly Line,” won them the grand prize among 50 teams from around the world.
The idea is to create “genetic Legos” that can be used to crate chemicals, but this could be easily adapted for “human genetic improvement.” Being open source, it certainly sounds like a viable alternative to black-market genetic engineers to correct your genetic defects. That may happen if genetic discrimination becomes reality, as people will look to correct the “genetic defects” discovered in their genotype.
More twisted than a double-helix. This is the kind of stuff that could give one fits. Some may never go down that road unless they’re forced kicking and screaming. Some will go willingly, only to be scared shitless by their results and hole themselves up in a bunker for the rest of their lives afraid of fulfilling their “genetic destiny.” Others may try to change that destiny.
Go go down that road, though, you will need to pay the toll. One grand, please…