The Science of Sustainability

Recreational DNA Sequencing

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Last blog I talked about the current revolution in DNA sequencing. Within the next five years you'll probably be able to get all 6 billion letters of your DNA on a CD to look over at your leisure.

Someone who read the blog asked me if I would have my DNA sequenced for 1000 dollars. My answer is that I most likely would. Even though I probably shouldn't.

Getting all of my DNA at this stage of the game is a bit like Adam in the Garden of Eden. I know I shouldn't eat that apple so I can stay in the bliss of ignorance. But I'd still take a bite.

I know I would because I've already started down that path. We thought about offering visitors to The Tech the chance to have their MC1R gene sequenced. This would be a fun way to learn about genes and the visitor would be able to figure out if they could have red haired kids or not (among other things).

As a beta test, I had my whole family done. This was very useful in figuring out how to do the sequencing properly. And it was so cool to see the results.

My wife and I knew we were both carriers for the red haired gene because we have a redheaded son. Even though we knew this, it was incredibly powerful to see the one letter change in my wife's and my MC1R gene that gave my son red hair. We could even tell that my daughter would not have a redheaded child since she didn't get a red haired gene from either of us.

There was something very satisfying about knowing about how red hair works from reading about it and then to see it in practice with my family. It made me want to look at my OCA2 gene to see the mutation I have that gives me blue eyes. In fact, I wanted to pore over my DNA and learn all I could from it.

But what if I find an ApoE4 mutation? This is a common mutation that increases your risk for Alzheimer's. But there isn't anything you can do if you have it. Just wait for the Alzheimer’s to maybe kick in. Or not.

What if I see something in a gene that decreases my risk for prostate cancer? Would I become complacent?

Most genetic tests for the more common diseases can just tell you your risk of getting the disease. They don't guarantee anything. And they can't provide a medicine or a treatment that can specifically help you because of having a certain version of the gene.

I'd be a wreck at the end of looking over my DNA. I would know lots about what can go wrong and not be able to do much about it. (It kind of reminds me of those full body scans that were all the rage a few years ago.) A little bit of knowledge can be a very dangerous thing!

And yet, I'd still want to know all of it. This is probably what made me become a scientist… this insatiable need to know everything. I wonder how many people out there would want their entire DNA sequence knowing there is very little that can be done with that knowledge.

Dr. Barry Starr is a Geneticist-in-Residence at The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, CA.

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Dr. Barry Starr

About the Author ()

Dr. Barry Starr is a Geneticist-in-Residence at The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, CA and runs their Stanford at The Tech program. The program is part of an ongoing collaboration between the Stanford Department of Genetics and The Tech Museum of Innovation. Together these two partners created the Genetics: Technology with a Twist exhibition. Read his previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.
  • Christopher Hitchens

    To consider scientific tools for your personal use, and comparing them to an outdated religion was idiotic.