An article entitled “Gene Test Kits – Can They Lead To Dating Services” by Annalee Newitz discusses the author’s thoughts on the implications of genome sequencing offered by the number of companies that have sprung up in the past year. As a genetic genealogist who is interested in the intersection of law, science, and ethics, I’m always interested in articles that examine the ethical issues associated with affordable genome sequencing. Unfortunately, this article turned out to have little substance behind some serious accusations.
Newitz begins by mentioning companies 23andMe and deCODEme, both of which recently launched genome scanning services. She then proceeds to her thesis, which is that these services are not only not useful, they are dangerous. She states:
“While there are many theories about how genetic expression works on our personalities and health, there are few solid facts. Some tests, such as those for various kinds of developmental disabilities, have provable results. But many genetic tests, like those 23andme claim can reveal ‘athletic ability,’ are the biotech version of snake oil.”
Snake oil was used by the author to describe this product as having exaggerated marketing but questionable quality. If you do a search for ’23andMe and “athletic ability”‘, the second link is 23andMe’s “Variations: Speed Gene: Fact or Fiction?” which examines the proposed link between the ACTN3 gene and athletic ability. The mini-report cites the scientific study (Lucia et al. (2007). “Citius and longius (faster and longer) with no alpha-actinin-3 in skeletal muscles?” Br J Sports Med. 41(9): 616-7) behind the link and concludes in part with:
“The fact that this long jumper is the first and so far only Olympic power athlete to be found who lacks the “gene for speed” is evidence for how important this gene is in determining this type of athletic ability. But his success is a testament to the fact that genes are not destiny.”
The question of ‘exaggerated marketing’ or ‘questionable quality’ are debatable, as we’ve certainly seen in the blogosphere in the past year, so I won’t get into any further analysis other to say that these companies, much like genetic genealogy companies, apply the results of scientific studies to the customer’s DNA and are not simply making up the information. It’s important to remember that the people taking these tests are pioneers; they are amply warned that the results are not a diagnosis and shouldn’t be used to make any important life decisions. The average price of these tests, $1,000 to $2,500, also suggests that people will not buy them on a whim.
My biggest concern comes from Newitz’s suggestion that genome scanning will lead to selective breeding (although she uses the term ‘eugenics’):
“But I don’t think it is just a little fun, like chocolate or “find the inner you” classes are. What I see when I look at a site like 23andme is nothing less than the future of eugenics. I don’t mean the scary capital E eugenics of the 1930s that involved killing Jews and sterilizing “loose women.” I mean wild-type eugenics, the kind of genetic engineering that happens in nature without any dictatorial intervention.”
I would argue that customers are using genomic services as a science and for their own enlightenment. For instance, just head over to the GENEALOGY-DNA archives and see all the discussion and analysis of the results of these products in the past 4 months. Genetic genealogists, most of whom are not phd-trained scientists (i.e. the masses), are already beginning to analyze the results of genomic sequencing for SNPs that might be associated with particular haplotypes, and thus reveal information about genetic genealogy. Although this represents just a fraction of the people who have been tested or are interested in testing, it suggests that people are interested in genome scanning as a scientific pursuit to learn more about themselves.
Newitz has an incredible resume (see Wikipedia), but after reading the article I was disappointed by her interpretation of the services offered by genome scanning companies. Although embracing very valid concerns about the cheap availability of genetic information, Newitz turned to sensationalism instead of an insightful discussion of the concerns. It’s possible that she chose to be a little controversial for the purpose of interesting journalism, but I feel like the sensationalism took away any value from the discussion. I’m certainly not discounting any of Ms. Newitz’s concerns, I just wish the article had shared more information in order to produce more informed readers.