Exposing Obama's Genome

And Oprah Winfrey's, Brad Pitts', and yours


Cheap genome screening is becoming ever more widely available. For example, the price of a genome screening test offered by Silicon Valley startup 23andMe has dropped from $999 to $399, and it now reveals even more genetic information to customers. Let's say the price for such tests falls to the price of over-the-counter paternity tests, making it inexpensive and easy for DNA collected from anyone to be screened. Collecting DNA from suspects is a standard plot device in television shows like CSI: Miami and is a facet of real life crime solving. Investigators pick up a cigarette butt, a soft drink can, a toothpick, or a hair follicle, and have the residual DNA sequenced. All of us shed DNA and anyone could pick up our DNA and send it in for screening. But why would someone want to do that?

Imagine how many fans might be voyeuristically intrigued by the genetic details of celebrities like Oprah Winfrey or Brad Pitt. In fact, Winfrey famously had her DNA screened as part of a PBS television series, African American Lives, in an attempt to trace her African ancestry. Apparently, the results located her matrilineal ancestors among the Kpelle people of Liberia. Now, a waiter at the Table 52 restaurant in Chicago could take a water glass used by Winfrey and hand it over to an enterprising tabloid reporter for a couple of hundred bucks. The reporter could swab the lip of the glass and send in a sample of the talk show host's DNA for screening.

Given that everybody has some kind of genetic disease risks, the tabloid might later breathlessly report that Oprah is at higher risk for type 2 diabetes, age-related macular degeneration, or Crohn's disease. Based on the results of three different genetic markers related to macular degeneration, a sensational (and inaccurate) headline might read: "Oprah To Go Blind, Says Genetic Test." In fact, I am surprised that something like this hasn't already happened. Finding out this bit of titillating, but generally irrelevant, genetic information about entertainment or sports celebrities is no big deal. But what happens when the same thing is done to politicians?

University of Boston neurologist Robert Green and bioethicist George Annas recently considered the genetic privacy of politicians in an article in the New England Journal of Medicine. Both the press and voters are interested in the health of presidential candidates. Green and Annas point out that "some presidential candidates, including Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and John F. Kennedy, misled the public about their health status and that illness may have affected their ability to perform their duties." Roosevelt concealed the fact that, as a result of polio, he was a paraplegic confined to a wheel chair. Eisenhower hid the seriousness of his heart disease. Kennedy suffered from numerous debilitating ailments, most critically Addison's disease, an endocrine disease that produces fatigue and muscle weakness.

During the 2008 campaign, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) allowed reporters three hours to look over nearly 1200 pages of his medical records. Democratic political activists published a full page advertisement in The New York Times calling on the 72-year-old McCain to release his medical records. The ad also hinted that the candidate might be hiding information about the possibility of a recurrence of melanoma that was surgically removed 8 years earlier. For his part, President-elect Barack Obama made available just a one-page letter attesting to his good health.

Green and Annas point out that McCain's father and grandfather died of heart attacks at 70 and 61 years of age, respectively. And Obama's grandfather died of prostate cancer at age 73. They note that current genetic screening tests can identify markers that have significant associations with heart disease and prostate cancer. Does the public have a legitimate interest in knowing if McCain has genetic markers indicating a higher risk for heart disease and that Obama has markers indicating a higher risk of prostate cancer? More problematically, some genetic markers can indicate a risk of psychiatric conditions such as bipolar disorder.

Again, it's just as easy to obtain a DNA sample from a presidential candidate as it would be to get one from a celebrity like Winfrey. Green and Annas are most worried that competing campaigns might engage in "genetic McCarthyism." That is, campaigns will seek to obtain DNA from their adversaries and then release genetic data that suggests that their opponents are somehow unhealthy. Such a tactic could be used to confuse the public because genetic information is easy to misinterpret and to misrepresent. Consequently, Green and Annas argue that "future presidential candidates should resist calls to disclose their own genetic information. We recommend that they also pledge that their campaigns will not attempt to obtain or release genomic information about their opponents." They reject the idea of making it a federal crime to sequence a candidate's DNA without consent. Oddly, Green and Annas overlook the plausible scenario in which some media organization surreptitiously obtains DNA from candidates, and then sequences it and reports the results.

Consider that the genetic risks suggested above for Oprah Winfrey are actually the results of my genetic screening test with 23andMe. The genetic screening company reports that 24 out of 100 people with my genotype will get type 2 diabetes between the ages 20 and 79. The average risk is 21.9 per 100 people. With regard to macular degeneration, 9.5 out of 100 people with my genotype will get it between the ages of 43 and 79. The average risk for people of European ethnicity is 7 out of 100. And 0.94 out 100 people with my genotype will get Crohn's disease between the ages of 20 and 79. The average risk for people of European ethnicity is 0.43 out of 100. I will save for a future article the good news that I also have a number of genetic markers that indicate lower risks for many other conditions. This is the kind of risk information that genetic screening tests will reveal. While I can think of plenty of reasons why I might not be cut out for politics, these genetic risks would not disqualify me, or anyone else, from political office.

Right now mendacious political activists and sensationalistic journalists could misrepresent and misinterpret genetic risk information. However, it is unlikely that such genetic risk information would be more toxic than claims that Obama is a secret Muslim. More and more Americans will learn about how to interpret genetic risks as genetic screening becomes routine and even more widely available in the next four to five years, making it less likely that such information can be abused. In any case, politicians, celebrities, and the rest of us should get ready for a world in which our DNA can be screened by anybody at anytime.

Ronald Bailey is reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.