As DNA testing sequencing gets cheaper, it seems that we live in a world that once only science fiction authors tread like Gattaca and Brave New World. Both depict a frightening future with genetics testing playing a key role. But will it be such a frightening world after all when DNA testing is the norm? Many things have seemed frightening before the technology was developed or when it was new. Air flight seemed impossible before the Wright brothers. Not a few were afraid to fly. And we could not envision how much computers and the Internet would change our world. We are just at the beginning of the Genomics Age and genetics testing. We can only conjecture what it will look like. But we hold the keys to creating a positive era both in our imagination and in the communication of the possibilities we wish to bring into fruition. As Mark Henderson points out in his article, “Human Genome Sequencing,” this advent of personal and medical genomics” calls for “broad[er] personal engagement” beyond the world of science.
So we have to begin talking more about how genetics and genetic testing affects our world and how we want it to affect our world. What is the basis for such unfounded fears? Henderson says one problem lies in thinking genetic testing is a “simple and deterministic science” when it is complex. Other factors have to be considered. Otherwise, isn’t this a belief in scientific predeterminism? Having a gene for obesity or cancer does not mean you have to be obese, or you are destined to get that type of cancer. Other factors have to be considered. This type of thinking is depicted in Gattaca, but the lead character, considered genetically deficient with a bad heart, out swims and outpaces his genetically enhanced brother and reaches his dreams. He is chosen for a prestigious space flight mission despite all odds. Genetic testing that indicates certain health conditions is not usually, for most health conditions, a life sentence. Many have missed that final point of the movie. But genetics testing is a useful tool we can use to make better lifestyle choices. It is knowledge.
But that doesn’t mean the path does not have some difficult spots and all fears are unfounded. As Henderson notes, there are other “social and ethical challenges” to DNA testing that we have to resolve. And there will likely be more. The Supreme Court just decided police can do a DNA swab test of anyone arrested —not charged. Some see this as protecting us as citizens in a world fraught with terrorism and others see this as an infringement of our constitutional rights. (“Supreme Court Says Police Can Take DNA Swabs”). It is up to us as a society to uphold this law or overturn it.
There will be more issues to solve as well. Should we allow the creation of babies from three parents? Britain is set to do this by also using the healthy mitochondrial DNA of a second mother when the biological mother’s mitochondrial DNA is diseased (“UK Take StepToward Three-Parent Babies”). Some see this as a great medical advance while others think it morally unethical.
And what of an artist who has been busy painting portraits of people from salvaged DNA from stranger’s hair and cigarrete butts found in public places? Is this an invasion of privacy? Or avant-garde? Matthew Herper, in his article, “Artist Creates Portraits From People’s DNA,” quotes the artist, a doctoral student, Heather Dewey-Hagbo, as saying these were only “speculative interpretations” and her key idea was to point to the future possibilities of DNA testing.
The possibilities of genetic testing in the future are only limited by our imagination. We just have to stay engaged. Until then you can test your DNA ancestry at http://www.dnaspectrum.com