THE FU­TURE’S BRIGHT: CON­SUMER GE­NET­ICS IS HERE

WEL­COME TO THE AGE OF CON­SUMER GE­NET­ICS

Guru Magazine - - CONTENTS -

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

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