Can we use genetic testing to make day-to-day decisions? Recent reports on DNA-driven dating fuel misunderstandings about what genetic predisposition actually means, writes Tim Vines. Deep down, I suspect I am a mutant. Not a Professor Xavier or Magneto mutant, or even a third tier mutant like Beak, but an ordinary, garden variety human who has, among my 21,000 protein-coding genes, a genetic mutation.
This mutation might not bestow superpowers, but so far it hasn’t killed me. Indeed, I might never know what part of my genome is different from the norm. Of course, if it is one of a small number of mutations known to directly cause disease, for example Huntington’s disease, or leads to a increased chance of certain cancers then it will play a significant role in shaping my future. More likely, my future will be determined more by my environment, experiences and lifestyle than the 3 billion letters of my DNA.
Except, perhaps, in matters of love.
Straddling the border between click-bait and science reporting, Fairfax reporter Sarah Berry recently reported on “at-home DNA tests” which promise to “detect whether your partner is likely to be a cheating love rat or whether they’re marriage material.” This follows an AP story run in November 2009 reporting that companies were “promising to match couples based on the DNA testing.”
Let me gaze into your genome…
Speaking to CLEO magazine — the original source for Berry’s scoop — Professor Michael Gillings, a biologist from Macquarie University, anticipates a time where “along with your profile on e-Harmony, you submit a DNA sample”.
One can already see the Hallmark Valentine Day cards of the future (attached to the “gift” DNA test you bought your partner).
Roses are red
Violets are blue
My DNA’s exome
Codes only for you
Behind the silly tone of these articles is a serious issue: will we ever, and should we ever, use the genetic profile of our partner to decide whether to shack up long term?
Indeed, can we ever compassionately and ethically use genetic testing in our day-to-day decisions, let alone in the context of family planning? Or will the decreasing cost of genetic testing and its increasing availably lead to a Gattaca-esque dystopia of genetic discrimination, or a future where patents over human DNA and testing mean access to longer lives and personalised medicine are only for privileged few.
While our law makers, courts and bioethicists argue over these questions, individuals are voting with their wallets and signing up for various genetic tests faster than folks in the comment section can type “EUGENICS!”
At best, however, commercial genotyping (the type provided by companies like 23andMe and love testers) can provide an amusing but not terribly illuminating resource to the curious. At worst, the results can cause anxiety, confusion, workplace discrimination, and restrict a person’s (and their family members’) ability to hold life insurance. This is because, even though we can read the letters of our genetic code, it is still largely that: code. We are still learning the words, syntax and idioms that turn a string of nucleobases into a mutation that causes cancer and how much impact our environment has on our bodies and DNA.
Complicating all this is the genetic variation between individuals and ethnic groups. Certain mutations (for example the BRCA mutations at the centre of the recent US Supreme Court decision) are more prevalent in certain populations than others. That doesn’t mean they are the only mutations that cause breast and ovarian cancer, but that they are the ones geneticists have discovered so far.
So while companies can offer genotyping for less than $100, and you can test for breast cancer mutations for anything up to a couple of thousand dollars, the results of those tests mean little until we understand the link between the letters of DNA and their impact on how our bodies and minds function.
Patents over genes are a bad idea
This is why patents over human genes are a bad idea: they slow down research that links diseases in different ethnic groups, to genetic mutations. With the bulk of medical research occurring in developed countries, based on the genetic profiles of a relatively small group of individuals (white and descended from western-European ancestors), it is easy to see how genetic monopolies can lead to the racially inequitable access to healthcare.
Surely though the companies offering at-home tests to assess whether your relationship will go the distance, or if your partner is of the cheatin’ type, are just a bit of fun? Caveat emptor and all that! Well…maybe. But the problem with these tests is that it perpetuates the notion of genetic predestination.
That a person with the cheaters gene (whatever that means) will stray. That a person with a genetic predisposition towards alcoholism or addiction will develop an addition; probably will steal to feed their addition; and therefore should not be employed. That, for the good of society, we should identify people with genetic or neural-structures that predispose them to anti-social or pathological behaviour at birth and isolate them.
Genetic mutations might allow Spider Man to swing from building to building, but they didn’t make him use those skills for good. His decisions were informed by his experiences and choices. So too can love rats shake off their (poorly understood) genetic baggage and settle down.
By all means upload your genetic profile to e-Harmony (perhaps there is a genetic basis for oversharing?); but don’t expect any more interest … except possibly from your insurer.
* Tim Vines is a Vice-President of Civil Liberties Australia.
This article was first published on NewMatilda.com