Does Your Genetic Information Long to Be Free? You’re fixin’ to find out

John Hawks ponders the day, very soon to come, when high school students will run their genome sequences in bio lab instead of their blood types. He’s riffing off an article by Ronald Bailey in Reason about Bailey’s experiences with his own genomic knowledge (“I’ll Show You My Genome. Will You Show Me Yours?”)

Some time before the end of this decade [Bailey writes], kids are going to be running gene scans and maybe even whole genome sequencing experiments in their ninth-grade biology classes, just the way some of us did blood typing experiments back in the mid-20th century. Then they are going to share that information with their friends on whatever social media follow Facebook and Twitter, and they’ll do it without parental consent. Nerdy high school sweethearts might swap DNA profiles and run them through computer programs designed to predict what their potential children might look like. In the process, of course, they will also be sharing information about their parents’ genes.

At this point, many writers would sound the alarm. Not Hawks:

I find a twisted appeal in the idea that postdocs now are doing what high school science projects will be about in ten years. …

Consider a time when genotyping can be done for $2 a chip in bulk. Each year, a new chip design is distributed to high schools across a state. One year, it may be dandelions. The kids sample yards across the state, collect plant phenotype data, and submit data to a common pool. Dispersal patterns, flowering time, other phenotypes are all possible targets of study. A structured population enables them to stratify their sample, exploit linkage due to historical events, and study traits linked to biological invasion.

For the price of one R01 grant, kids across a whole state might develop a new model organism, learn the principles of genomics and produce the data equivalent of dozens of research papers.… I think we have to acknowledge that most of what today’s genomics postdocs are doing is exactly the kind of analysis that I’m describing for high school kids in 2020, except with much smaller, poorly-designed samples. What makes this Ph.D.-level work is that our current software is not very good at it — in large part because the current software is mostly written by postdocs with little training in systems design.

Hawks is just taking a quick look at this, and as he notes, he’s just calling it out rather than drawing any Big Conclusion. But what struck me reading it is that the current hand-wringing about letting this data genie out of the bottle — What are we willing to peek at in our own genomes? How much should we share with siblings or children or spouses or potential dates? OMGOMG— could be fast outrun as genomic data becomes easy and cheap to get. To be fair, that speed is exactly why some people are pushing to answer these questions now: a good thing, for example, that we’ve barred health insurers (but not life insurers!) from using the data. As things move forward, I find myself more of the mind of George Church or (somewhat similar) Misha Angrist: This stuff will out faster than we can build a filter, so get used to the idea, and get ready for the Data. Church and Angrist put their money down: They published their entire genomes, everything, on the web.

But I wonder if the rest of us have only so much time to deliberate before the info lands in our laps. When I genotyped just one single polymorphism last year, for instance, I thought hard about whether I should do it and how to explain its meaning to my siblings and, someday, my children. I’m now pondering whether, when entire genotypes get down around $500 or so, I would do the whole thing and what I would share, and how I would explain things like risk genes to my kids. Good, thoughtful David! The way things are moving, however, it’s not hard to imagine being interrupted in my careful deliberations by the news that my oldest son, now in his majority, has run his entire genome: Look Dad! Here’s half your genome! And all the data I was so carefully deliberating whether to share with him.

To me the big question — well, not The Big One, but the one I find particularly intriguing — is whether people will recognize or learn that with very few exceptions, the greater part of a gene’s meaning lies in its interaction with a person’s environment and experience. I’m not sure we’ll get that.

[A note on the vid: Life brings the strangest disappointments. I always liked this ad, which I think I saw maybe three times. It’s more really that I liked remembering the ad, and I liked remembering because in my remembered version, the redneck passenger, when asked if that thing has a hemi, says, “You’re fixin’ to find out.” Fixin’ is one of my favorite southern regionalisms (along with “Shit, I reckon.”). But the guy doesn’t say Fixin’. He says “You’re about to find out.” Damn. I think the writers missed a great chance here.]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *