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Health

Biology to the masses

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanMay 25, 2011 6:17 PM

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Josh Roseneau, when he's taking time off from the evolution-creation wars, is poking around his own genome. Some sage advice:

On DNA Day, 23 and Me had a sale on their personal genomics service. They'd do their standard scan of your genome for free, as long as you paid for a year's worth of their online subscription service. ... For the price (nearly free up front, and a modest cost for the online community provided), my wife and I jumped on the deal. Since I got the results back two weeks ago, I've been exploring not only the services and information provided by 23 and Me, but the various other tools that individuals have started producing to help analyze and investigate this insight into my ubiquitous but invisible DNA. ... My genome, for instance, revealed a genetic predisposition towards late-onset Alzheimers. The odds of getting Alzheimers are still quite small, but elevated because of this particular mutation to the APOE4 gene. This wasn't a total surprise, given my family history, and as a healthy, young guy with a background in biology and biostatistics, it wasn't hard for me to put that information into a context and move on. Down the road, I'll probably keep an eye out for new research on Alzheimers medicines and look into tools for early detection, but I'm not going to kill myself if I forget my keys. (Thanks to the federal Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act and the Affordable Care Act's prohibition on "pre-existing conditions" - not to mention the inherent uncertainties in translating this genetic result to a specific outcome - I'm not especially worried about discussing that result in public)

We need to demystify DNA. It's pretty obvious to me that people perceive genetics to be in the domain of magic, when in reality it manifests itself in the banal realities of correlations within the family, which we're intuitively aware of. But Josh's post is more than just personal, he reviews the book Biopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life:

Most of the biopunks Wohlsen introduces us to aren't trying to cure diseases or create genetic tests. They surely wouldn't mind if they changed the world somehow, but their interest in DIY biology is driven more by a sense of personal exploration and a pure fascination with how things work. The goal, one of these biopunks explains, is to "increase the tinkerability" of biology, "simplifying and domesticating" it to make it accessible to anyone who wants to play with it. Groups like the Bay area's Biocurious aim to create communal molecular biology labs which anyone can join and tinker in; Biocurious will open its lab this summer in Mountain View, not far from Google and the researchers at NASA's Ames facility. ... But I'm also fascinated because this is the future even for people whose aversion to biochemistry is even greater than my own. Just as everyone in the mid- to late 20th century needed some grasp of physics to be able to think sensibly about nuclear energy, nuclear war, and a host of related issues, the 21st century is sure to be dominated by biology. And DIYbio can play a key role in democratizing science, precisely because it's more focused on what's neat than on what's likely to turn up a new Nobel Prize or a new patent and venture funding for a biotech startup. Its openness will be a great strength as a tool for improving science literacy, and biopunks know it.

I obviously support this movement and its intents (I've met a few of the people who are prominent in it). But we need to keep perspective here. This will probably be analogous to the free or open source software movement; the base of tinkers will be much larger than corporations and academic institutions, but it isn't going to expand to cover the majority of the public. But so what? Most us can probably agree that the ad hoc decentralized elements of the software engineering community have done good just by putting pressure on the margins of staid institutions. Similarly, a minority of biology enthusiasts and hobbyists are going to shape the production and consumption of the plethora of new products we're going to see coming online within the next few decades. There is often someone in the family who you turn to for tech advice. Now there may be someone in the family who you turn to for personal genomics advice. This is the democratization and decentralization of specialization! When it comes to the mass consciousness aspect I think personal genomics and other consumer biotech will play a large role in demystifying DNA, and in the future making the public more open to the possibilities of bioengineering. Those of us alive today are on the cusp of a new age. I think the medium-term shape of that age is highly sensitive to initial conditions, so we should be both hopefully and vigilant.

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