2018/10/11: "On the genetic level, you shouldn't expect much privacy, and decisions about your privacy are being made by your family (probably without consulting you)."
Earlier this year, news broke that police had devised an unexpected new method to crack cold cases. Rather than use a suspect's DNA to identify them, data from the DNA was used to search public repositories and identify an alleged killer's family members. From there, a bit of family tree building led to a limited number of suspects and the eventual identification of the person who was charged with the Golden State killings. In the months that followed, more than a dozen other cases were reported to have been solved in the same manner.
The potential for this sort of analysis had been identified by biologists as early as 2014, but they viewed it as a privacy risk—there was potential for personal information from research subjects to leak out to the public via their DNA sequences. Now, a US-Israeli team of researchers has gone through and quantified the chances of someone being identified through public genealogy data. If you live in the US and are of European descent, odds are 60 percent that you can be identified via information that your relatives have made public.
2018/09/19: DeAngelo was found using GEDMatch, a website that pools user-uploaded genetic profiles from other genealogy websites. GEDMatch exists “to provide DNA and genealogy tools for comparison and research services” and has an open-source database of 650,000 genetically connected profiles. DeAngelo, who evaded capture for decades, was meticulous in his crime scenes and certainly did not upload his DNA to a website in the hopes of uncovering his ancestry. But a third cousin of his did.
“The privacy concerns raised by the Golden State Killer investigation don’t disappear just because GEDmatch, the genealogical database investigators reportedly used, was a public site. In fact, investigators’ decision to upload a detailed genetic profile generated from crime-scene DNA to a public website likely violated the alleged perpetrator’s privacy rights,” Vera Eidelman of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) wrote in an op-ed in the Washington Post. “Even if DeAngelo is found guilty of the crimes he is accused of, penalties for such crimes do not typically entail releasing a person’s entire genetic makeup. People may not be so troubled by such an intrusion when it comes to a serial killer, but imagine the implications of using this technique for shoplifters or trespassers.”
2018/10/03: The announcement from a new genetic technology had successfully eradicated a carefully contained population of Anopheles gambiae mosquitoes grabbed headlines last week across the world. It not only indicated an incredible piece of science. It also opened a Pandora’s box of complicated ethical questions.
The technology works by creating a disruption to a particular gene found in the sex cells of mosquitoes. By manipulating something called the “doublesex” gene, the researchers were able to ensure a stream of female descendents possessing a biological mix of both male and female mosquito parts. These “intersex” mosquitoes are both genetically and phenotypically revolutionary.
Is it desirable for humans, rather than evolutionary forces, to determine both the species composition and the genetic make-up of the organisms that surround us? As technologies reach deeper into the surrounding world and become more precise, is it morally acceptable for humans to drive engineered changes through systems previously determined by ancient forces lying beyond our species’ reach? To some extent this means the transformation of nature into artifact.
Such a future would mark a new period in earth’s history in which one species takes up a novel role as planetary manager and designer. This species would do this consciously, deliberately, and – in the case of gene drives – quite dramatically.
Such a tightly engineered future may be inevitable. It may, in many ways, also be highly desirable.
What it shouldn’t be is a future we find ourselves immersed in without the chance to debate it, to reflect on it, and to fully understand the arguments both in its favor and against it. This is a discussion that is only just beginning.
In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of children continue to die of malaria.
2018/09/25: DNA, these marketing campaigns imply, reveals something essential about you. And it’s working. Thanks to television-ad blitzes and frequent holiday sales, genetic-ancestry tests have soared in popularity in the past two years. More than 15 million people have now traded their spit for insights into their family history.
If this were simply about wearing kilts or liking Ed Sheeran, these ads could be dismissed as, well, ads. They’re just trying to sell stuff, shrug. But marketing campaigns for genetic-ancestry tests also tap into the idea that DNA is deterministic, that genetic differences are meaningful. They trade in the prestige of genomic science, making DNA out to be far more important in our cultural identities than it is, in order to sell more stuff.
First, the accuracy of these tests is unproven (as detailed here and here). But putting that aside, consider simply what it means to get a surprise result of, say, 15 percent German. If you speak no German, celebrate no German traditions, have never cooked German food, and know no Germans, what connection is there, really? Cultural identity is the sum total of all of these experiences. DNA alone does not supersede it.
Listening to 99 Luftballons or rooting for Germany in the World Cup is fairly trivial as these things go. But this wave of marketing campaigns encourages a way of thinking—that you can pick and choose which fractional parts of genetic identity to highlight when it makes for good cocktail-party conversation.
Neither the Golden State Killer nor Buckskin Girl had a genetic profile in the archive used to identify them. That didn't matter.
2017/06/28: Using this algorithm, we have reidentified an average of > 8 of 10 held-out individuals in an ethnically mixed cohort and an average of 5 of either 10 African Americans or 10 Europeans. This work challenges current conceptions of personal privacy and may have far-reaching ethical and legal implications
We now have the power to easily alter DNA. It could eliminate disease. It could get really out of hand.
As genetic testing explodes, health insurers are banned from denying coverage based on results. The same doesn't apply for life insurance.
As we ride through the desert, Mathur explains how he and his company hope to break Asian rubber monopoly using gene sequencing and an unassuming desert plant. It's a long story, and about halfway in, as a way of describing this grand plan, he tells me about his parents.
Europe is famously tesselated, with different cultural and language groups clustering in different regions. But how did they all get there? And how are they related?
Genetic study reveals that two-thirds of European men can be traced back to just three individuals who lived between 3,500 and 7,300 years ago.
I disliked and feared maths for most of my school career and dropped it as soon as I possibly could. My mother recalls me crying as a five-year-old because: "I can't do the people-on-the-bus sums". If
The next time you wolf down that Big Mac with large fries consider you may be affecting more than your own waistline. Scientists now say an unhealthy diet can be encoded into DNA, which is passed down to future generations.
2014/02/14/: Genes examined in study are not sufficient or necessary to make men gay but do play some role in sexuality, say US researchers
Chromosomes and genes contain the blueprint for your physical characteristics. But your parents' health and diet before you were conceived can also affect how your genes are expressed - and impact your
If your great-grandparents lived through a famine, their experience could well have altered their genetic code. And three generations later you could well be showing signs of that change. The idea that
Recent news that Angelina Jolie underwent a preventive double mastectomy because of her elevated risk of developing breast cancer has drawn attention to the Myriad Genetics case currently before the US Supreme Court, and to the whole area of gene...
Do your genes, rather than your upbringing, determine whether you will become a criminal? And if we can spot people predisposed to crime, should we intervene? Tim Adams reports
How a Tiny Island Nation Captured the Lead in the Genetic Revolution