Are You The Next ‘Genomic Idol’?

Nature, the journal that first showed us the double helix, is now reporting the debut of brand new DNA sequencing technology used to reveal the DNA of James Watson of the legendary duo Watson and Crick. The process, called “massively parallel DNA sequencing,” allowed the entire genome to be sequenced in 4 months for just a million bucks.

Soon, the dream of sequencing your genome overnight at an affordable price will become a reality.

The technology, which beat the original Craig Venter sequence process by several years and 99 million dollars, is the new standard for genome sequencing efficiency. Now, more then ever before, (obviously), we can gather full DNA sequence information and put it to good, clean scientific use.

However, we still have a lot to learn.

A quote at the end of Nature’s editorial article on the subject illustrates the strides that still need to be made:

“Egholm was part of a counselling session advising Watson on the meaning of the 20 mutations in his sequence that are reported to be associated with increased disease risk. ‘It was so profound, how little we were actually able to say [to him] about that,'”

Let’s ignore the fact that Watson just turned 80, so learning that he has a susceptibility to anything except spontaneous combustion is pretty irrelevant. The real point is that the sequence is just the beginning. It’s like we’ve learned how to make a list of all the words in the English language more quickly, but we still speak like a two-year-old Chinese kid repeating dialog from a Van Damme flick . What we now need are sentences.

Many people worry about the future of DNA sequencing, and the really tough questions that will have to be posed. For example, what famous individual should be sequenced first to win the X-prize for the $10,000 genome? (The prize is for 100 genomes in 10 days, but someone has to start) If we’re following the trend of going backwards in DNA history, we would probably need to dig up Gregor Mendel and get his sequence. But then, there would be ethical questions. (For example, what if we took his DNA, used it to make clones of him, then played around with the sequence so that one clone was green and round and the other was yellow and wrinkled, and then we crossed them, what would the result be? Think it through.)

But there are other alternatives for sequencing candidates. To show you what I mean, here’s an interesting tidbit from the actual paper that was published in Nature by David Wheeler’s group. They posed a question about whether or not people who give their genomes up for research should be given full access to the information received. Here was their response:

“The research team felt that because of Dr Watson’s unique expertise he would be able to understand adequately the significance and limitations of these data. Therefore…Dr Watson was given his entire genome sequence on a miniature hard drive…It remains controversial whether other research participants who do not share Dr Watson’s expertise ought to be informed of individual results of genetic research. Certainly for many, whole-genome data will be meaningless. A more analysed form of the data may therefore be required.”

Two things I want to know:

1. Why a miniature hard drive? Was he going to listen to it on an iPod?
2. Doesn’t this sound a little demeaning? Why don’t they think that we, the average people, couldn’t handle the information? You don’t think we won’t understand what would happen if we have a substitution mutation in a tyrosine on one of our T-channels?

The rapid sequencing of our genomes means that we, as a nation, are going to have to step up on our genome literacy. But there needs to be a national push to get people more involved in reading DNA sequences– perhaps a campaign involving celebrities. That’s why I propose that the next person that gets sequenced with new technology not be a scientist, but be someone well-known and respected who can come to symbolize the cause of genetic literacy. For example, if we start a new PBS program called “Sequence-Reading Rainbow”, we might want to see if Levar Burton is still available.

James Watson and Craig Venter have pioneered the path for all of us to know the intimate details of our DNA. Let’s have someone a little less dorky when we turn that path into a highway. That’s the way of progress.

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