Gene Illiterate

Section 13 of the NOVA documentary Cracking the Code of Life talks about the potential danger of making genetic information public. With DNA Databases “popping up all over,” Robert Krulwich, the narrator of the documentary, highlights concerns over privacy. George Annas of Boston University compares a DNA molecule to your future diary – “[no one] should be able to open your future diary except you.”

The experts from the NOVA special seem to be taking one thing for granted: I’m gene illiterate. So while experts fret over my future diary becoming “an open book,” like that of Ethan Hawke in the film Gattaca, I’m almost more concerned that I can’t read my diary for myself.

I know how to read a roadmap, a musical score, a storybook, or a list of parts. The genome metaphors go on and on, but they’re all things that the general public can probably decipher, at least for the most part. But I wanted to know what the genome actually looked like, so I took a look at some of the databases. For those of us without a background in science, it’s a little frustrating. Searching for “Blue eyes” for the human species yielded four results on the Ensembl website, while searching for “Alzheimer’s” yielded 31. Clicking on one of the results bombarded me with a string of words, letters, numbers, and hyphens that I can’t make heads or tails of.

I know that I’m no science expert. But all of these threats of what “cracking the code” means for our future seem all the more threatening when I feel like my potential “gene enemies” can read this information and I can’t.

Take a look for yourself:

Ensembl
NCBI
UCSC Genome Browser

-Michelle C.

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~ by Michelle Cohen on January 31, 2010.

One Response to “Gene Illiterate”

  1. You have inadvertently raised an issue about communication between science and the community. You also raise a concern that is particularly scary to me. There are companies out there (i.e. 23 and me) who will look at your DNA (for a cost!) and tell you if you are predisposed to certain types of complex diseases. It is all meant for “entertainment.” However, without proper knowledge about what these statistics mean, these results can be a scary thing for the individual receiving them and also could potentially be used against them in terms of insurance companies not funding people based on the results. It’s great that there is ability to sequence a person’s whole genome, but we (as a scientific community) do not have enough knowledge (yet!) about its functions to make claims. There is also a grave responsibility in having this amount of information about individuals’ genomes.

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