Our genes, ourselves: let’s get naked. (April 2011 issue)

Know your DNA, know yourself. Writer Ronald Bailey is happy to share the results of his genetic test with the world, but some people are concerned about privacy issues.
Chepko Danil/iStockphoto
Date:22 March 2011 Tags:, , , , , , , , ,

This month’s cover story, “The naked gene”, recounts the experience of writer Ronald Bailey after he sends off a saliva sample for genetic testing. As he describes it, the process is disarmingly simple: “You spit into a test tube, send it off, and a few weeks later you get a readout of up to 1 million single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) from your genome.”

Whereas the terminology may be daunting, the results are readily understood by anyone – and they make fascinating reading. For example, Bailey’s mitochondrial DNA reveals that his maternal line descends from Haplogroup U5, which arose among early Homo sapiens sapiens colonisers of Europe about 40 000 years ago. According to his Y chromosome, his paternal line hails from Ireland.

But that’s the gee-whiz stuff. The really interesting information lies in the data revealing his predisposition to various medical conditions, and his likely reaction to certain pharmaceuticals. As Bailey says, the tests are not perfect, but they are the beginning of a process through which consumers, doctors and other health purveyors will learn how to better interpret and use genetic information over time.

All of which leads to a slightly thorny issue – our privacy. Bailey was happy to post the results of his test online for all the world to see, but would we do the same? If your employer knew you carried markers associated with alcoholism or schizophrenia, could it comprise your career? Might such genetic evidence be cited in a divorce hearing? If your insurance company discovered you were predisposed to Alzheimer’s, could it cancel your policy or load the premiums?

Bailey himself appears unfazed, making the point that we live in a society characterised by increasingly radical self-disclosure and transparency. He predicts that genetic information will not be immune to this trend: “Some time before the end of this decade, kids are going to be running gene scans and maybe even whole genome sequencing experiments in their ninth-grade biology classes, just the way some of us did blood typing experiments back in the mid-20th century. Then they are going to share that information with their friends on Facebook and Twitter, and they’ll do it without parental consent.”

We probably won’t go that far, but we rather enjoy the idea that spitting into a test tube can teach us so much about our genetic make-up… why we enjoy that extra glass of wine, why we react so badly to rat poison (warfarin) and why we prefer fighting to fleeing. As early adopters, it’s probably our duty.

Moving along, we introduce “Blue sky power”, a thought-provoking story about big-bucks investors (including Google) who are gambling many millions of dollars on an energy source that’s just this side of science fiction – airborne wind turbines. The theory seems solid, but they have no illusions about the work that lies ahead. Is all the effort – not to mention the massive investment – worth it? Experts Ken Caldeira and Cristina Archer think so, having calculated that airborne turbines could potentially produce 18 terawatts of electricity – “more than enough to power modern civilisation without adverse affects on climate”.

And now for something completely different – our annual feature on the most desirable (and in some cases, downright loony) timepieces from Baselworld, the planet’s premier watch showcase. Interestingly, some of the most respected (and expensive) brands have yielded to market pressure and are now producing designs that actually border on the sexy. Witness the Millenary from 136-year watchmakers Audemars Piguet, which features a striking mechanism and tiny gongs. How cool is that?

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– Alan Duggan (aland@ramsaymedia.co.za)