20 October 2007


Now, where have I heard this before?

Today it costs only $300,000 to sequence a person's DNA, and the $100,000 benchmark is in sight. It's an information processing problem, he said. In other words, Moore's Law and genetics are tightly tied. It won't be long before your genome--and your likelihood to get various diseases, live long, be athletic, etc.--will be available in a standard medical test.

The implications for medicine, and its evil twin the insurance industry, are vast. Despite the privacy issues, Venter is in favor of transparency in genomics, so that, for example, you'll be able to "Google a date's DNA," as O'Reilly remarked. Scary? Sure. But "a good idea," Venter said. "Especially if you plan to have children."

Oh yes, I remember:

Consider a not-too-distant future in which personal genomes are readily available. For those with relations affected by a serious medical condition, this will conveniently provide them with any genetic test they need. But it will also offer the rest of us information about our status for these and other, far less serious, autosomal recessive disorders that might similarly manifest themselves in children if we married a fellow carrier.

A bioinformatics program running on a PC could easily check our genomes for all genes associated with the autosomal recessive disorders that had been identified so far. Regular software updates downloaded from the internet - like those for anti-virus programs - would keep our search software abreast of the latest medical research. The question is, how potentially serious does a variant gene's effects have to be for us to care about its presence in our DNA? Down to what level should we be morally obliged to tell our prospective partners - or have the right to ask about?

And just when is the appropriate moment to swap all these delicate DNA details? Before getting married? Before going to bed together? Before even exchanging words? Will there one day be a new class of small, wireless devices that hold our personal genomic profile in order to carry out discreet mutual compatibility checks on nearby potential partners: a green light for genomic joy, a red one for excessive recessive risks?

Given the daunting complexity of the ethical issues raised by knowing the digital code of life in detail, many may opt for the simplest option: not to google it. But even if you refuse to delve within your genome, there are plenty of others who will be keen to do so. Employers and insurance companies would doubtless love to scan your data before giving you a job or issuing a policy. And if your children and grandchildren have any inconvenient or expensive medical condition that they have inherited from one side of the family, they might like to know which - not least, to ensure that they sue the right person.

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