THE FUTURE’S BRIGHT: CONSUMER GENETICS IS HERE
WELCOME TO THE AGE OF CONSUMER GENETICS
It’s a safe bet a Tarot card reader won’t give you a reliable prediction of the future – but ‘buy your own’ genetic testing promises to be a crystal ball for your health. Abigail James asks whether you really want to know.
Have you ever asked yourself: what will things be like in 2025? Will I be happy? Will I be healthy? Or will I be the unlucky 1 out of 3 to develop cancer? Cripes, how will I die!? Finding the answers to these questions is becoming easier than you might think. Your genetic code has now become your personal crystal ball, but finding out your future could be more trouble than it’s worth as Abigail James uncovers. Brace yourself: a genomic revolution is coming. Genes, genomes, chromosomes, genotypes, nucleotides, deoxyribonucleic acid… The world of genetics is a squall of jargon that can easily leave us at sea. Cut through the storm, though, and things can be remarkably simple: the genome is like a cookbook, containing all the instructions needed to make you.
What’s in your cookbook?
The recipes that make you, you are written in very tightly-wound lengths of DNA: your chromosomes. These bundles of DNA have instructions (genes) scattered along them like houses on a street. Geneticists have discovered many thousands of different genes – and continue to
do so (almost) daily. It is thought that 99.9% of the genetic make-up of each of us is identical; it is the tiny fraction that is different that makes me so different from you – and it’s this enigmatic 0.1% that hides the clues to our future health. Until recently, DNA was weird, elusive stuff: a version of you, in digital form – a seemingly random sequence of four letters, ATGTTATGCCGA... and so on. But it’s no longer so mysterious: we have entered the age of ‘consumer genetics’ – with the promise of being given a glimpse of our futures. And all we have to do is to slobber in a pot and put it in the mail. Yes, really.
Spit and know
Like any biological fluid, saliva (the stuff of spit) contains traces of your DNA. If you send a sample of your spit to an obliging laboratory, they’ll be able to extract the DNA and analyse it. At the lab, particular regions of your DNA sample will be compared with a large database. The extent to which your DNA is similar to (or differs from) other people’s DNA in the database at specific locations can indicate your chances of developing various diseases – compared to that of the general population.
But wait: like many areas of medicine, getting results and knowing what they actually mean to your life are often two very different things. Imagine you’d sent your saliva sample to the lab, and received a report back stating very matter
of- factly “You have a 9.8% chance of develop
ing disease X; this risk is 20% higher than the average of your ethnic background.” Wouldn’t that sort of information freak you out? Well, it appears that the general public are remarkably resilient: a study at Boston University has shown that those who discovered they were likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease were no more stressed two years later than those who had not. Knowing the future – even if bad – is therefore not necessarily a bad thing. That said, it is just one study – and consumer-led genetics raises many other concerns.
Tearing the family apart
For one thing, your genetic information doesn’t just belong to you: it also belongs to your mother, your father, your sister, your brother. By its very nature, your genetic information is passed through your family – which is why they say you’re a ‘chip off the old block’, and why your mother scolded you for behaving ‘just like your father’. Gene-testing results that are troubling to you can be equally as troubling for your family members – especially if they don’t want to know. If tested, will your brother feel ‘survival’ guilt if it turns out he has a lower risk than you? What