Protecting genetic storage

Protecting genetic storage

Summary: It ain't just bits on your laptop, buckoMIT's Technology Review blogger David Ewing Duncan writes about Nobel Laureate and co-discoverer of DNA, James Watson.DNA is, of course, a very compact biotech storage medium - pure informationWatson agreed a couple of years ago to have his DNA sequenced and publicly released by 454 Life Sciences.

TOPICS: Storage

It ain't just bits on your laptop, bucko MIT's Technology Review blogger David Ewing Duncan writes about Nobel Laureate and co-discoverer of DNA, James Watson.

DNA is, of course, a very compact biotech storage medium - pure information Watson agreed a couple of years ago to have his DNA sequenced and publicly released by 454 Life Sciences. According to Duncan, he's having second thoughts:

I have spent time with Watson and wrote about it in my latest book, and I can tell you that he can be impulsive and brash. Indeed, only after he made the project public did he realize that he might not want the world to know that he could have genes associated with diseases.

Early in the project, Watson asked 454 to delete his results for the apoE gene associated with Alzheimer's disease. Now he may have more disease variants inked out to protect his and his sons' privacy.

I wonder if he will stop there, since in the future, geneticists will refine their knowledge of DNA and might be able to parse out genes that influence everything from, say, neural disorders to behavior quirks such as arrogance or a quick temper--both of which Watson has been accused of.

A human is just DNA's way of making more DNA Here in America, with our hopelessly broken health care "system" - Motto: You can buy better but you can't pay more! - insurance companies will happily shun you for much less than an Alzheimer's gene. Indeed, medical privacy is a sick joke in this country, where by law even bill collectors have access to your medical records.

Massive data storage has many benefits - and some scary implications I'd like to think that a world that preserves photos - or better yet, movies! with sound! - of one's every youthful indiscretion on the web will force the world's angry and judgmental people to lighten up and accept that we are all human and flawed. Eliminating tortured "I smoked but I didn't inhale" circumlocutions in favor of honesty and transparency. Yep, even encouraging people to engage on the issues instead of personal attacks.

And maybe pigs will fly.

The Storage Bits take It is within our grasp to make information immortal through massive, replicated and networked data storage. Yet human culture is largely based upon forgetting that which we'd rather not remember, and not learning what would be impossible to forget.

Genetic privacy isn't written into the Constitution, so many lawyers and ideologues would argue you have no right to it. But isn't America all about new beginnings? About who you are rather than where you came from? About what you can do rather than what your genes - or your college party habits - may say about your past?

James Watson is grappling with these issues today. Tomorrow, all of us will.

Comments welcome, of course.

Topic: Storage

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  • Wonderful movie, Gattica

    During this time society analyzes your DNA and determines where you belong in life...born with a congenital heart condition (assumed to be genetic) which would cast him out of getting a chance to travel in of the last "natural" babies born into a sterile, genetically-enhanced world, where life expectancy and disease likelihood are ascertained at birth. Myopic and due to die at 30, he has no chance of a career in a society that now discriminates against your genes, instead of your gender, race or religion.

    That's what we're looking at for the near future if genetic information isn't protected from access and use.

    The flip side is, insurance companies always want to know about pre-existing conditions because that effects their bottom line. A genetic condition represents a risk, either low to 100% certain. So they tailor their premiums to reflect that risk. Forcing companies to insure bad risk cases at the same premiums as low risk cases forces them to raise ALL premiums to the point where it's more cost effective to not get insurance. Which is one of the reasons for so many people in the U.S. not having health insurance.

    Personally, I'd love to see some private foundation(s) support a eugenics program that encourages people with few genetic defects, or with genetically advantageous traits, to have children with each other. Say, some kind of program that provides a stipend for raising each child, and a scholarship once they reach their age of majority.

    But keep Uncle Sam out of the gene pool, please!
  • I Agree, this is going to be a problem unless we kill it soon.

    We should file DNA under privacy. We should amend the constitution to prevent discrimination based on "genetic makeup".

    Once this is done, we only have to worry about people unkownly being cloned :)

    The problem with society today is that we keep closing doors rather than open new ones. If we keep closing them, we might as well go back to the dark ages. How are we as a civilization going to progress scientifically if we have to constantly hold ourselfs back because of a group who disagrees on a religious basis, a preferencial basis, or a lack of knowledge basis.

    An openness of ideas that are mixed and then recombined to form new ideas has been the basis for human progression. Everytime someone puts the kibosch on that, we as a race suffer.