17 May 2015

Personalized DNA Analysis Will Eventually Be Something You Can't Live Without

Personalized DNA analysis reminds me of computers in the early 1980s.

In 1983, fresh out of university, I managed a ComputerLand store. People would come into the store to see what they could do and we would show them how cool they were but quite a few people wandered away a little baffled about the hype. If I wanted people to be particularly confused by my excitement, I would expound on how all information - from books and newspapers to radio and TV - could be digitized. Eventually, newspapers and TVs and radios and phone calls will be streaming across digital lines, I would tell people. They would say, "Oh."

And now, of course, computers are unavoidable. 

Recently we got 23andMe analysis of our DNA and it very much reminded me of Apple IIe and the first IBM PC. What we got was ancestry analysis, something that showed probable countries of origin for the folks who've contributed to my genetic make up. I found out I have European ancestors, which is almost comical in terms of obvious information. There is not a lot that I learned. My maternal and paternal haplogroup (a specific mutation) are shared by Anderson Cooper, Meryl Streep, Catie Couric, and Stephen Colbert. I am 2.9% Neanderthal - slightly above the average for 23andMe members. And while most of my DNA traces back to British and Irish (33.9%) and Scandinavian (28.1%), tiny amounts trace back to Ashkenazi Jews (0.1%) and Yakut Indians (0.1%). All of that was interesting but not really enlightening. Like the personal computers of the late 1970s and early 1980s, this DNA analysis seems to me more full of potential than actually cool. Yet. 

My prediction? We will learn an enormous amount about DNA in the next decade or three. The consequence will be that we will be able to tell new parents that probably their child will need intense physical challenges to develop their potential or need lots of social activity or very little social activity or will do best connecting lots of fast moving ideas or focusing on one big idea. We will be able to tell their community - from parents to teachers to managers - what sorts of conditions are most likely to cause them to thrive and which are most likely to make them freeze up or glaze over.

It is very cool to be able to calculate a spreadsheet or write a document on a word processor. It is so much more cool to be able to connect socially with hundreds of friends on Facebook or publish a blog post. It is very cool to be able to see your genetic ancestry by country. It will be much more cool to better understand who we are and what conditions allow us to realize our potential rather than wander through life confused and unrealized. Like modern computers, personalized DNA analysis is going to become something we won't be able to live without.

2 comments:

Thomas said...

What I'm afraid of is that they won't change the path to fit the people, they'll change people to fit the path.

If just one country- China for instance- decided to tweak the DNA to breed fearless warriors, brilliant scientists, and happy drones, then other countries would have to do the same to compete. Eventually we're either living in A Brave New World, or we've been assimilated by the Borg.

Neither fate gives me hope.

Ron Davison said...

Thomas - That's a bad sci-fi scenario. I'll choose to ignore that one. But it does make an interesting point: most evolution has come through adaptation to the environment and its goals rather than the other way around. I think.