Davos08: Me and my DNA

23andMe, the DNA company, offered free tests to 1,000 of the Davosati, unlocking our DNA for each of us, telling us about certain genetic propensities, identifying our heritage, and opening up a new social network of the gene.

We went to a booth in the fancy party hotel and spit — and spit and spit and spit some more — into a plastic tube and created a web account. Investor Esther Dyson even brought a few kits with her to the fancy final-night dinner party and had moguls salivating. In a few weeks, I’ll have my report back. This one is on the house for Davos participants. Otherwise, it costs $1,000.

I’ll confess that it is a little freaky. I’m unlocking secrets that have been with me since birth and my family since Adam. In there could be my fate, God forbid, if I have a propensity toward one disease or another. There goes a bit of free will out the window. On the other hand, if I can avoid disease because I am informed, I’ve just gained more power.

I also am dying to get the report on my ancestry. It is filled with mystery because my family tree grew on the rocky slopes of Appalachia. That is, we’re hillbillies. My grandfather’s father is unknown — we think his name was (and thus mine should be) Reilly (or is that Riley?), but we’re not sure. So for all I know, I’m Irish. My wife looked at pictures of my grandmother on the other side and insists she looks black. So maybe I’m African. We all want to know our roots. I was jealous of my wife’s ability to track her family to Germany and for us to meet them. I’ll never be invited to the Reilly family reunion.

It’s just information, my DNA. That was the point made by Craig Venter and Richard Dawkins at the DLD conference in Munich last week. Venter pretty has pretty much proven that he could take my DNA and put it in you and suddenly you’d be blogging and talking fast. We are merely vessels — media — for the data in our DNA.

Does this give me fantasies of cloning myself? No. There are enough of me. And if another of me turned out to be wildly successful, I’d feel like such a failure.

It’s hard to imagine that I’ll end up joining some social network around my genes, but I won’t rule it out, especially if there turns out to be a problem. As I’ve recounted here, by revealing my heart condition (atrial fibrillation; in control; thanks for asking), I’ve gained support and information from the experience of others. It even helped that Tony Blair had the same condition treated, because the media covered it and linked to yet more resources.

I’m sure doctors are hating this. At the Davos session I moderated on stimulation (no, not that kind), I sat next to two doctors who hated their patients coming in with information on the internet. They complained that some had misinformation and some were suffering from online-induced hypochondria. I argued back that their response should be to point their patients to good and reliable information resources online. I said that they, like media, should act as curators.

So unlocking our DNA may well link us to communities of information that can be helpful.

Finally, I wonder whether there’s information in aggregate that will come out of this new industry. Can we discover more linkages between disease and genes because there is now more data that we provide in return? In other words, maybe the lung blowouts that I share with my father (and Patty Hearst, by the way — another celebrity disease connection) can be attached to a gene if enough of us report the condition and turn out to have common elements in our DNA.

And with this free offer from 23andMe at Davos, perhaps the company will be able to find out just how weak the gene pool of the rich and powerful really is.

I’ll report back when I get my data.

  • http://geoffjones.com Geoff

    Isn’t it interesting that the rich and famous are offered free DNA tests whereas lesser mortals have to pay $1000. Do you think your results will be amalgamated with your google account :-)

  • http://geoffjones.com Geoff

    and many thanks for the most interesting running commentary about Davos!

  • http://billkosloskymd.typepad.com/wirelessdoc/ Bill Koslosky

    I wonder what would happen if you didn’t carefully rinse after maybe some steak tartare before doing the spit thing?

    You might be surprised with a genetic profile that includes some bovine or equine genes.

    The 23andMe blog, BTW, is called The Spittoon.

  • a.

    “lung blowouts”?

    I’m a little afraid to ask…

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  • Christian Kleineidam

    What do they exactly do?
    They probably don’t get the whole genome indexed because that costs around 100.000$/genome at the moment.

    According to their site they test for 6*10^6 “data points”.
    On the other hand a full human genome has 3*10^9 bases. Which is a lot more total information.
    Two share around 99,5% of their genetic information. That means they index (6*10^6)/(0.005*3*10^9)=4% of the differences between humans.
    While they certainly index enough information to judge how related you are to another person, the chance that when you had that information for all humans of the planet and the disease informations from all humans you would still only find the genes for every 25th genetic disease. Maybe a bit better because there come also a few other factor into play. It could also be a bit worse because multiple Gen variations could lead to the same symptoms.
    Since people in Africa have certain Gen variations that the average European doesn’t have you might also get a correlation between those Gen variations and an illness like Malaria with someone in Africa gets to a higher percentage then an European.
    That means you get a big mess of data.
    In addition the company has privacy agreements that probably prevent it from using the data in such ways.
    I guess we will have to wait till it gets cheaper to get all data before we get an industry that specializes in finding those links between diseases and gene.

  • jason k

    Christian, their website seems to do a good job of explaining what/why they are doing things

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