Hacking Your Genome: So What?

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genome hacking

I've been meaning to get to this. A couple of weeks ago, the New Scientist ran a rather breathless story about 'hacking" one of its journalists genomes. Basically, one journalist, Michael Reilly, took a second journalist's, Peter Aldhous's, DNA from a water glass he used. Reilly sent the sample out to a DNA extraction firm of the sort used by the police for amplification. Then Reilly submitted Aldhous' DNA to some of the genotyping companies that scan the DNA as his own. Some glitiches occurred along the way. The amplified DNA couldn't be read by one scanning company, so they substituted semen from a condom when they sent another sample. They also had the DNA amplification company do a scan as well.

The article begins:

INTIMATE secrets hidden in your DNA could be stolen without you even realising. By taking a glass from which you have drunk, a "genome hacker" could obtain a comprehensive scan of your genome, revealing DNA variants that help determine your susceptibility to a wide range of diseases, from a common form of blindness to Alzheimer's disease. 

And concludes:

One thing is clear: if lawmakers fail to rise to the challenge posed by genome hacking, we all have reason to fear for the security of our DNA.

Sounds quite ominous, but is it? In February, Stanford University law professor and bioethicist Hank Greely gets it right when he told Salon.com:

"People believe in the magic of genes, and buy into the idea that they are the deepest secrets of our being," Greely says. "Whereas maybe my credit card records come closer to being a deep secret of my being." … "The public is set in an older, more determinative view of genes," Greely says. But as we learn more, he suggests, "it's entirely conceivable we'll see genes as independent risk-enhancing or limiting factors, but not particularly important in and of themselves."

Back in December, my column, "Exposing Obama's Genome" concluded:

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.

At the heart of the New Scientist article is a contradiction to the notion that someone's "intimate secrets" have been laid bear bare by genome hacking. The journalist publishes the results of his genome hacking including the fact that he has alleles indicating a higher risk of Alzheimer's disease. See here.

In any case, I will be soon publishing the results of my recent genotype scanning so that anyone in world who cares to can see all of my known genetic flaws. 

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  1. By taking a glass from which you have drunk, a “genome hacker” could obtain a comprehensive scan of your genome

    And they could get your fingerprints, too! Oh noes! How exactly will lawmakers “rise to the challenge” here? Ban cups?

    I hate people like this.

  2. “so they substituted semen from a condom…”

    and the dude didn’t catch on even then?

  3. “so they substituted semen from a condom…”

    that his coworker picked up after the office party.

  4. umm, since the discovery of the dna test and how to decode it you have been able to do this. think of all the House episodes CSi etc, where the dna is taken form an article a person left behind. this is nothing new, this is not really even a concern. This is sensationalising an issue to get uneeded laws passed

  5. All you need to see my genetic flaws is a bottle of scotch and a strip joint. Possible a confrontation of some kind.

  6. so they substituted semen from a condom…

    These be not hackers they be crackers of the buggery sort.

  7. There Is No Gene For The Human Spirit.

  8. Antonie van Leeuwenhoek would be proud.

  9. My “fear” about my genes/genome going public is how it may be used against me.

    If my genes make me uninsured or prevent me from getting a job or maybe the government singling me out for special scrutiny because of these “independent risk-enhancing or limiting factors”

  10. CT,

    If you are that genetically inferior then you need a different line of work. Perhaps something in the janitorial arts?

  11. If you wanted to, you could get a DNA sample just by walking by someone with a vacuum and trapping some of the dead skin cells that surround us all constantly like a little halo of dust. Genetic privacy is pretty much a joke.

    I think there is a danger in the widespread idea that genes somehow contain our essence but I think that education will eventually offset that. Most genes that make people prone to this or that illness or behavior have benefits as well which is why the genes persist in the population. People will quickly learn that there are no good or bad genes (save a handful genetic diseases like Huntington’s Chorea) just genes that make biological tradeoffs in an imperfect world.

  12. Yo, I turn up my nose and sniff at New Scientist.

  13. People will quickly learn that there are no good or bad genes…

    There certainly are bad genes and I carry at least one. The DeltaF508 mutation that causes cystic fibrosis. Unfortunately for my son, my ex-wife carries that gene too. I don’t think the insurance company knowing that information in advance would have been helpful to me or my son.

  14. I’ve got to get my DNA analyzed to see how much those cosmic rays altered it.

  15. you could get a DNA sample just by walking by someone with a vacuum

    If a dude’s getting his DNA sucked out of him anyway, why take all the fun out of it by using a vacuum?

  16. Ron,

    When are you going to be doing another story on geneticists and that living forever stuff?

  17. “If a dude’s getting his DNA sucked out of him anyway, why take all the fun out of it by using a vacuum?”

    😉

  18. I look forward to seeing your genetic code. I just hope your insurance company doesn’t see it too and decide that your “pre-existing condition” negates your policy.

    The fact is that while the ‘one gene=one disease’ model no longer works, there are numerous genetic markers that do provide reasonable proxies for ‘disease potential’.

    That isn’t the type of thing I’d want made public.

  19. Put another way — if smoking can raise your insurance premiums despite the fact that not ALL smokers go on to develop health problems (but the group as a whole DOES), then why would your genetic code be any different (i.e., Note EVERYONE with a particular genetic marker goes on to develop Cystic Fybrosis, but as a group, people that have that marker do so more often)?

  20. someone’s “intimate secrets” have been laid bear

    ?

  21. There certainly are bad genes and I carry at least one. The DeltaF508 mutation that causes cystic fibrosis. Unfortunately for my son, my ex-wife carries that gene too. I don’t think the insurance company knowing that information in advance would have been helpful to me or my son.

    Right, because then the insurance company would be able to price appropriately for that risk.

  22. If you are that genetically inferior then you need a different line of work. Perhaps something in the janitorial arts?

    And how do you know my line of work? What makes you think I am not already working in the janitorial arts ?

  23. Right, because then the insurance company would be able to price appropriately for that risk.

    Poor insurance company! My heart weeps for them.

  24. And how do you know my line of work? What makes you think I am not already working in the janitorial arts ?

    What makes you think that you have a need to know?

  25. it’s not like you can dust for semen…

  26. you can vm, but only if the donor is very, very old.

  27. [Not] EVERYONE with a particular genetic marker goes on to develop Cystic Fybrosis

    But everyone with both of those genes do.

    Reformed Republican –

    Except, health insurance companies – unlike car insurance companies – cannot assess the risk equally among all particpants in the insurance pool. Even those that carry the genes that cause CF cannot be assessed equally becuase of the 1200 mutant gene variations identified, only about 800 can be identified through testing. That why there is insurance, to pool risk.

    You’d better hope they never identify the gene for being an asshole.

    Oh yeah, fuck you!

  28. Why do you insist that the human genetic code is “sacred” or “taboo”? It is a chemical process and nothing more. For that matter -we- are chemical processes and nothing more. If you deny yourself a useful tool simply because it reminds you uncomfortably of your mortality, you have uselessly and pointlessly crippled yourself.

  29. Xeones: Fixed. Thanks. Damned homonyms!

  30. Damn place is full of pedantophiles, homonymphobics and anti-semants.

  31. Obviously criminal gold digging DNA hackers will use this tech to target wealthy men with a high risk of early heart attack to marry.

    I honestly can’t think of any other use for this technology, unless people start making bar bets about whether the dude in the cardigan has at least one recessive eye color gene.

  32. If my genes make me uninsured or prevent me from getting a job or maybe the government singling me out for special scrutiny because of these “independent risk-enhancing or limiting factors”

    That would only happen if the

  33. “INTIMATE secrets hidden in your DNA could be stolen without you even realising.”

    Is info you don’t have one of your “secrets”?

  34. Is info you don’t have one of your “secrets”?

    Let’s just keep that between us, ok?

  35. Except, health insurance companies – unlike car insurance companies – cannot assess the risk equally among all particpants in the insurance pool.
    Of course not, but the more information they have, the better they can assess that risk, and the better they can perform their function.

  36. “In any case, I will be soon publishing the results of my recent genotype scanning so that anyone in world who cares to can see all of my known genetic flaws.”

    Why grandma! What a big ego you have!

  37. Of course not, but the more information they have, the better they can assess that risk, and the better they can perform their function.

    You’re interfering with my right to spread the cost of my hideously expensive as-yet-undetected future illness among thousands of relatively healthy people! [/sarcasm]

  38. You’d better hope they never identify the gene for being an asshole.

    I’m a little concerned about this myself.

  39. Chicago Tom and High Every Body-

    I know a guy who was formerly practicing the janitorial arts for a nearby public school system. That was before striking it big, twice, with the lottery! First time was for 2.7 million; the second, for 2.1 million.

    BTW, according to MNG, that is more money than all of the regular H&R posters have put together.

  40. I’m in ur genome doing something or other that’s scary.

  41. New Scientist trumps Greely. Bailey is wrong again. Teetering towards Moynihan!

  42. *yawn* go watch Gattaca. Is it that big a deal?

  43. “”””People believe in the magic of genes, and buy into the idea that they are the deepest secrets of our being,” Greely says. “Whereas maybe my credit card records come closer to being a deep secret of my being.””””

    Monitoring one’s IP address would do more to be closer to the deep secret of one’s being.

    Social networking sites do more to expose one’s self than anything DNA can do.

  44. *yawn* go watch Gattaca. Is it that big a deal?

    Yeah, and go watch The Day After Tomorrow to see what’s going to happen if we don’t stop climate change. Personally, I like watching Terminator to get insight as to what’s gonig to happen if we don’t slow down our development on computer technology.

  45. I know a guy who was formerly practicing the janitorial arts for a nearby public school system. That was before striking it big, twice, with the lottery! First time was for 2.7 million; the second, for 2.1 million.

    Ther was there a sequel to The Breakfast Club?

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