Monday 25 November 2019

A Geneticist Writes……

There are a number of companies, that for a fee, will provide your genetic information. Thus, you will be able to find out where your antecedents came from in the beguiling guise of a racial profile. All harmless stuff you say. All you have to do is scrape a few cells from your cheek, spit into a tube,  send it on to the lab and for less than $US 70 you can have your genome sequenced. The data generated contains much more than the indelible imprint of your ancestry, as it unlocks your particular and peculiar genetic makeup, in totality. But all that raw data requires interpretation and this is where the problem lies. So much data and so little industry regulation. Mayhap your raw data could be sold on to a third agency for nefarious purposes. In such an instance your ability to obtain health insurance may be compromised; maybe government agencies could gain access to your genetic makeup for reasons known only to them, and god(s). I suspect that if you deal with a well established and accredited laboratory the chances that your genetic data would be passed on for financial gain is unlikely. That said, the number of companies offering genetic profiling has burgeoned of late and their services can be described as comprehensive and utterly useless. These companies will ‘interpret’ your raw data in ways incompatible with reality. Thus, you can be ‘tested’ for a whole range of ludicrous traits. One company will boldly provide information concerning your personality and cognitive ability: they will be able to state whether you are depressed, lonely, introverted, intelligent and uncover your insipient allergies. One particular company (Soccer Genomics) will examine a child’s DNA and then design a sports training regimen designed to turn the child into a professional football player (c'mon the baggies). 

While it is true that there are significant genetic influencers concerning the above-mentioned traits, it is also true that, given our present understanding, we have no way of extracting and interpreting the data in any coherent manner concerning basic human behaviours. Essentially these companies are providing entertainment and their predictions are as useful as a horoscope. Needless to say, most professional geneticists consider these upstart genetic companies with frank disdain. They cynically deceive the curious, but scientifically naive, for their own financial satisfaction by providing a service which is not based on our current understanding of the underlying genetics. The genetics of complex behavioural and cognitive traits is poorly understood and we haven’t reached the stage where we can confidently and cogently make predictions based on DNA sequences. Of course, these companies are not particularly adept at informing their customers about the limitations of their interpretation.

As always, prudent folk should exercise and engage their intellect before partaking of any genomic service. They should research pertinent questions concerning our current comprehension of the fundamental genetics underpinning complex traits. The data we obtain from spittle in a jar is formidable and voluminous and herein lies the crucial problem and limitation: as always the devil is in the detail. We are unable, even with stupendously powerful computer programs, to extract meaningful information concerning basic human behaviour. Mayhap this will change, and sometime in the near (or distant) future, we will acquire the necessary scientific wisdom, and tools, to unlock the indubitable mysteries of our nature. But until then I counsel extreme scepticism and caution.

If you crave ‘genetic knowledge’ then I suggest you send me $US 100 and your pinky toe, and as a professional geneticist I will then cast the runes, or bones depending on my medication cycle and whether or not I have imbibed copious amounts of brown ale (hic). Thereafter, I will ponder deeply and delve into my vast reserves of intellectual rigour and provide answers to your earnestly sought questions pertaining to your innermost and darkest personality lineaments………… . wibble, fanny, arse bollocks.       



  1. One set of identical twins, two different ancestry profiles.

    At least that’s the suggestion from one of the world’s largest ancestry DNA testing companies.

    [Spring 2018], Marketplace host Charlsie Agro and her twin sister, Carly, bought home kits from AncestryDNA, MyHeritage, 23andMe, FamilyTreeDNA and Living DNA, and mailed samples of their DNA to each company for analysis.

    Despite having virtually identical DNA, the twins did not receive matching results from any of the companies. In most cases, the results from the same company traced each sister’s ancestry to the same parts of the world — albeit by varying percentages.

    Marketplace sent the results from all five companies to [computational biologist Mark] Gerstein’s team for analysis. He says any results the Agro twins received from the same DNA testing company should have been identical.

    Related article: Video: Looking back at groundbreaking twins research—and its impact on genetics
    And there’s a simple reason for that: The raw data collected from both sisters’ DNA is nearly exactly the same.

    “It’s shockingly similar,” he said.

    When asked why the twins didn’t get the same results given the fact their DNA is so similar, 23andMe told Marketplace in an email that even those minor variations can lead its algorithm to assign slightly different ancestry estimates.

    The company said it approaches the development of its tools and reports with scientific rigour, but admits its results are “statistical estimates.”

    Read full, original post: Twins get some ‘mystifying’ results when they put 5 DNA ancestry kits to the test

    1. And these companies represent the respectable end of the market: buyer beware.