Saturday, November 10, 2007

Prejudice and DNA

There is an article in this Sundays' New York Times by Amy Harmon about prejudice's possibly being revived and stoked by the oncoming personal genomics revolution. I think there is no doubt this is coming. The problem is really two fold in my opinion.

First, as reflected in the story, it is pretty clear that despite the claims of some researchers who seem like they simply want to avoid the subject, we will start to see more findings of genetic differences among populations. . For example, Marc Feldman from Stanford (who by the way was on my thesis committee) is quoted as saying
“There are clear differences between people of different continental ancestries,” said Marcus W. Feldman, a professor of biological sciences at Stanford University
The second part of the problem, in my opinion, is an extension of something I complain about routinely here - the overselling of genomics. In this case we have a double effect. First, is the effect of "DNA." Somehow, when analysis of DNA is part of a study or story, people seem to overestimate its importance. Then comes the genomics-effect. Since genomics is about "all" the DNA, it carries even more weight than normal DNA studies. On the one hand, this is reasonable, as genomics does give a more thorough picture than past genetic studies. But on the other hand, genomics gets oversold as somehow telling the whole story. In this regard I buy the argument in the Harmon story reflected in the quote by David Altschuler that
it is so clear that the economic and social and educational differences have so much more influence than genes. People just somehow fixate on genetics, even if the influence is very small.”
I certainly think personal genomics is going to reveal lots of interesting connections between genes and various phenotypes. But there is no doubt data from personal genomics will lead to the amplification of prejudices and biases already present.


  1. On one hand the hype might be good because it helps to bring in more private investment and companies working on personalized medicine but as you say the hype distorts the perception of nature vs nurture with many possible negative side-effects. One way to deal with this would be to help emphasize the nurture side of personalized medicine. Things like the impact of human microbial populations, etc.

  2. Good idea -- turn it around to emphasize effects of nurture. Problem is, I do not see too many companies choosing this angle no?

  3. I don't know that many companies working on personalized medicine. In the long run it should be possible to cheaply profile (for example) the gut microbial gut population and have an idea how these impact on treatment and possible aggravating/alleviating consequences to metabolic disorders.
    I think it is at least worth keeping this in mind to balance the nature vs nurture debate as more studies come along.