Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Genome or Playstation? Hmmm...

Well, we're still here, so the LHC hasn't destroyed the universe... yet. Good news.

Recently there was some not so good news for people who deposited their genetic information (not that way!) into public databases - there is some concern that this information can be tracked back to individuals. This doesn't seem like such a big deal, and it won't be until one day we apply for life insurance and they tell us, "Well, we found your genome online and it looks like you have a 10-fold elevation in your risk for contracting the hoobajabbies within the next 11.6 years, so we're going to need to increase your premiums." Seems a little science-fiction and Big Brother, until you find out that 23andMe (who I've talked about before) can now "sequence your genome" for the same price as a Playstation 3.

Now, I say sequence in quotation marks because they don't really sequence the whole thing, which so far only Craig Venter can really do, at the cost of tens of millions of US dollars. Before the currency started plummeting. Only two people have a data file containing their whole genomes at this point, and they are Dr. Venter and James Watson, and even what they have is a "best guess" from a computer-guided reassembly of their whole genomes from sequenced fragments.

The As, Cs, Ts, and Gs that make up your DNA are known as nucleotides, and there known places where there are differences in the population. These are known as single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), and we have discovered thousands of them. Some of them are even associated with certain (real) diseases, although these studies represent correlations rather than causes. Still, insurance companies calculate premiums based on actuarial tables - statistical correlations - and I don't want them exploiting a $400 sequencing service to make a couple bucks by nailing people who happen to be born with a couple bad nucleotides.

I am seriously impressed that our legislators have already been thinking about this, but clicking on the government link for information about genetic discrimination legislation gets 404'd, which leads me to be believe that it's not exactly a hot issue these days. Like puffin poop.

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