Hacking Your Genome: So What?


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.