WSF report: Your Biological Biography

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TED’s Matthew Trost reports from this Saturday session of the World Science Festival:

Nobel Prize winner and cell biologist Paul Nurse moderates a discussion between the leader of the Human Genome Project, Francis Collins, physician and geneticist James Evans, and sociologist Nikolas Rose after an introductory piece of context by Misha Angrist, who recently had his genome sequenced and analyzed by private genotyping firms and is writing a book on it.

+ Francis Collins offered some explanation on the basics of genomics, namely what a genome is and what it does. He classifies the genome as basically an “instruction book.” The human instruction book, printed on regular paper in a regular font size, would be as tall as the Washington Monument.

+ Drawing from Angrist’s thoughts on trying to find some predictive value in what he learned from having his genome sequenced, James Evans puts forward a discussion on Alzheimer’s — the possibility of predicting one’s own risk. He asks whether knowing one’s chances is valuable, or whether it just needlessly damages people emotionally if they find out they’re at high risk. He says there has to be a way of managing the public desire for the information with the possible personal consequences of getting it. He stresses: genomic “risk” stretches across one’s whole lifetime.

+ Collins shares the results of a study in which one group was told their risk of Alzheimer’s. Even if they had a high probability, it didn’t ruin their lives. Instead, it helped them think more about preparing for the possibility.

+ Nikolas Rose objects to the definition of the genome as an “instruction book.” He wants to “dethrone” genomics. He says “genomic metaphysics” has been creeping into science and public understanding. This is a misinterpretation of genetics. Genes are not the “source of who I am.” There are lots of environmental factors that must be taken into account as well.

+ Everybody agrees that the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act that George W. Bush signed into law several days ago is a good thing.

+ Angrist weighs in: Genomics is not something we can “put back.” He reiterates the need to manage it and teach people about the complexities.

+ Paul Nurse offers a philosophical question: what about determinism? Collins isn’t impressed by questions on determinism. It’s been an open question since long before genomics. James Evans, meanwhile, isn’t convinced we have free will. The group agrees that changing the justice system based on the question won’t work. Courts aren’t standing for deterministic arguments as a criminal defense.

+ Collins: after all, half of all people in this audience have a genotype that makes them genetically predisposed by sixteen-fold more than the other half to commit crimes like murder. Those are the people with a Y chromosome — males!