Biology to the masses

By Razib Khan | May 25, 2011 9:17 am

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.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Biology, Biotech, Personal Genomics
  • ohwilleke

    People learn things that have practical relevance in their lives.

    For example, many reasonably sophisticated high school and college kids have a surprisingly broad working knowledge of the purpose, name variants and characteristic side effects of most of the couple dozen most commonly prescribed drugs and have a fairly good system in place for quickly figuring out what is relevant about any new one that they encounter.

    Indeed, their knowledge is in some ways more useful than the official propoganda that appears when drugs are dispensed by a pharmacy, because it incorporates more realistic probabilities and severities of side effects rather than a throw in the kitchen sink approach driven by FDA regulation and product liability laws. Yet, some of that information is only really relevant when a decision to start taking a prescription in the first place is made, not in day to day usage after the risks and benefits of the drug have been weighed and a decision made. And, other risks are either described in a way that is hard for someone who isn’t quite functionally literate to understand.

    The folk wisdom focuses on the parts of that information that are most pertinent. In contrast, someone without that folk knowledge who isn’t quite functionally literate can easily get bogged down in the verbosity and difficult vocabulary of a prescription drug label and have trouble intelligently winnowing it down to what they really need to know.

    I suspect that we are going to see similar kinds of folk wisdom develop with personal genomics.

    A few gene variants will become notorious and will probably develop their own slang descriptions because they are fairly common and have practical or short to medium term consequences that matter. Some of the likely early candidates are gene variants associated with language learning disabilities, with resiliance in the face of traumic events, with novelty seeking, and with high propensities to have unstable marriages. Don’t be surprised if the word “Fox” (for the FOXP gene) develops a secondary meaning that corresponds to dylexic rather than to pretty or wiley. These will be the roofies and ambiens of genomics. Revealing these facts or keeping them secret may be have some of the character in the twenty-teens and twenty-twenties that coming out or not coming out as gay has in the last couple of decades.

    I suspect that folk wisdom will develop some other folk term for the elements of a genome that are individually uncommon and less immediately relevant, but have some kind of empirically established relationship to something that people care about but that doesn’t have high salience socially. The APOE4 gene in the original post, the genes associated with breast cancer risk, high blood pressure or LDL accumulation risk genes, and who knows what else may fit in the category. I imagine them developing a name like “zits” that conceptualizes them as little blemishes that different people have in differering amounts, which one wishes one didn’t have but doesn’t lose sleep over.

    Then, there will be large parts of genomics that will not enter folk wisdom at all as content specific knowledge. But, some folk wisdom may develop regarding how to approach these parts of genome data when you receive it. Googling a gene variant that you or someone you know has will probably become as instinctive a reaction as googling a propective blind date, new business contact or new hire. Mostly, these results will end up being “ho-hums.”

    But a few of these results “oh shit” tragedies on a par with a diagnosis of an early stage of something like A.L.S. or lupus or M.S. or asymptomatic cancer that has already spread that is the stuff of diadactic after school TV specials, self help books, and sleep inducing oscar wannabe movies. There are going to be some small number of people who discover, for example, that they have an extremely high chance of developing some incurable disease with a 50% chance of killing you from sudden heart failure by the time you turn fifty, or are at a very high risk on very early onset Alzheimers, or have strongly predisposed to not yet symptomatic schitzophrenia or bipolar disorder. It will have all the psychological horror of diagnosis with a dreaded chronic degenerative dreaded disease without the immediate physical discomfort. FWIW, Western culture has had Greek tragedies that have explored the consequences of having fate dump a load on you like this for a few thousand years already, so it won’t take our society much innovation to develop philosophical approaches to dealing with them.

  • James Aach

    Regarding the concept that: “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.” — it is important to point out that this didn’t happen if by “everyone” the author meant the US population beyond those already interested in science. We are still seeing the effects today, from how we’re dealing with the Japanese nuclear crisis to how we are addressing alternative energy (an area in which hope seems to play a much bigger role than math). Perhaps it will be different with biology and DNA, but its hard to picture this technology being anything less than magic to most of the folks wandering around the big box stores.

    James Aach
    Author – “Rad Decision”

    The novel “Rad Decision” culminates in an event very similar to the Japanese tragedy. (Same reactor type, same initial problem.) The author has worked in the US nuclear industry for 25 years. The novel is free online at the moment at . (No adverts, nobody makes money off this site.)


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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