Welcome to Gattaca: What’s in your genes?
There are a few things I’d like to share. I’m at greater than normal risk of developing Crohn’s disease, Tourette syndrome and losing a testicle or two to cancer. On the bright side, the odds are I’ll never develop Type 2 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis or multiple sclerosis. My IQ and episodic memory fall into the “typical” range (go to town with that one, Punchers).
Although I’m of 99 per cent European extraction, my mother’s people are Haplogroup J, which arose in the Middle East 45,000 – 50,000 years ago. On my father’s side I’m Haplogroup R1b1b2a1a2f, which most likely formed in Turkey about 20,000 years ago during the last Ice Age.
How do I know all this? Did I subject myself to an exhaustive battery of medical tests and spend millions of dollars tracing my genealogy back into the mists of time? Well, no. I spat into a vial, mailed it off, then logged on to a website a few weeks later to have the mysteries of my genetic code laid bare.
Eight years ago, the three billion DNA letters in the human genome were sequenced. Three years ago — by which time the cost of testing had dropped to a mass-marketable level — Anne Wojcicki, the wife of Google co-founder Sergey Brin, kick-started the ‘retail genomics’ industry, launching a personal genomics and biotech company called 23andMe. Nowadays, anyone with few hundred dollars and a mouthful of spittle to spare can quickly and easily obtain estimates of their predisposition to everything from baldness to blindness to bladder cancer.
Granted, only a few early adopters — typically well-educated, well-heeled professionals — have thus far availed themselves of the retail genomics industry’s services; the general public is largely unaware it even exists, and it has thus far had pretty much zero impact on the way society functions.
But two decades ago you could have said much the same things about the internet and we all know how that turned out. With the cost of testing predicted to continue to fall sharply, many experts believe that over the next five years almost all of us will have our genome sequenced and be disabused of any romantic assumptions regarding our ethnic heritage or blissful ignorance about which medical conditions will blight our future. If there’s the will to do so, recessive genetic diseases such as cystic fibrosis could be bred out within a generation.
If you’re starting to get the impression at this point that the emergence of mass DNA testing is going to pop the lid off a supersized can of worms, well, you’d be right. There are about one million healthy carriers of the recessive gene for cystic fibrosis in Australia, most of whom currently have no idea they are carriers.
Once they have all been identified by mass genetic testing, should they be forbidden from having children with each other? (If you think that’s a far-fetched scenario, be aware that the government of Cyprus, determined to eliminate a severe hereditary anemia called Thalassemia, tested its citizens and strongly discouraged carriers from marrying each other. The disease has now been all but eliminated, though no-one knows how many hearts were broken in the process.)
If — for religious or other reasons — a couple of carriers pair up and choose to take their chances, do they then have any right to expect the rest of the community to fund the care of their child if it is born with cystic fibrosis?
Here’s a few other questions:
- Which organisations are going to have access in the future to the priceless genetic databases companies such as 23andMe (part-owned by Google) are building up?
- What will be the impact on the funding of medical research once everyone knows which diseases they are likely to be afflicted with?
- Will the laws forbidding insurers and employers from engaging in genetic discrimination — introduced by governments a few years ago when they woke up to the implications of widespread testing — prove to be as ineffective as those outlawing the identification and subsequent abortion of female foetuses in Asian countries?
- Will an individual’s fate be set in stone once the results of its genetic test, likely to be conducted soon after birth, are revealed?
The ancestry aspect of these tests comes fraught with its own set of exquisite dilemmas. How long until an enterprising uni student gets tested, discovers he has Aboriginal heritage and makes a case that he should be entitled to Abstudy? What happens to a person’s sense of identity when they discover the family mythology about their origins is a fairytale? (Oprah Winfrey, having decided she was descended from Zulus, was reportedly devastated when a DNA test proved her ancestors were members of a less glamorous African tribe.)
No-one has yet worked out the answers to any of those questions, but it seems we all better get cracking on it quick smart.
Nigel Bowen has written an article about the rise of retail genomics for the current issue of GQ.
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