Computers only understand binary code (0 and 1). Still, we can use Google to search for our personal information. Similarly, the structure of our DNA is represented by sequences of molecules labeled A, C, G and T. In this eye-opening article, the Guardian argues that we'll soon be able to search our personal genome for a susceptibility to a certain disease. This is not as far-fetched as it sounds. After all, the National Institute of Health (NIH) is looking at the $1000 genome. And prices will inevitably drop. Soon, you'll have all your personal genome, your code of life, on a CD-ROM. This raises difficult and ethical questions. Will the government, the insurance companies, your employer or your life partner be able to access your personal genome? Frightening, isn't?
Here are some of the most interesting excepts of the Guardian article.
[For example,) a bioinformatics program running on a PC could easily check our genomes for all genes associated with [a particular disorder.] Regular software updates downloaded from the internet -- like those for anti-virus programs -- would keep our search software abreast of the latest medical research. The question is, how potentially serious does a variant gene's effects have to be for us to care about its presence in our DNA? Down to what level should we be morally obliged to tell our prospective partners -- or have the right to ask about?
And just when is the appropriate moment to swap all these delicate DNA details? Before getting married? Before going to bed together? Before even exchanging words? Will there one day be a new class of small, wireless devices that hold our personal genomic profile in order to carry out discreet mutual compatibility checks on nearby potential partners: a green light for genomic joy, a red one for excessive recessive risks?
Even if you don't want to look at your personal details, Others will be interested.
Employers and insurance companies would doubtless love to scan your data before giving you a job or issuing a policy. And if your children and grandchildren have any inconvenient or expensive medical condition that they have inherited from one side of the family, they might like to know which -- not least, to ensure that they sue the right person.
And what about the police? Right now, it only analyzes fragments of DNA gathered at the scene of a crime and compares them with the contents of a limited database. Imagine what would do the police if it had access to your personal genome?
Last September, the police called for the UK national database of DNA samples to be extended to include everyone. Given the determination of the UK government to introduce identity cards, despite widespread opposition and the well-known flaws in the whole approach, it can only be a matter of time before it links the two compulsory schemes together. The advantages -- for the authorities -- would be enormous.
And in the middle of the battle that currently rages in the UK about a national ID card, imagine the following scenario.
Including a silicon chip storing your entire genome would add little to the overall cost once sequencing becomes cheap, but would ensure that an identity card would be tamper-proof and impossible to forge, since its identification number - the sequence of As, Cs, Gs and Ts that make up your genome - would be unique to you (apart from any twin) and always checkable against your DNA. Moreover, there would be no need for the proposed draconian legislation to make carrying such cards obligatory: it would be a physical impossibility to do otherwise, since your digital code/identification number is present in practically every cell of your body.
Now that we have looked at the ethical questions raised by the exploration of our personal genomes, you might want to refresh your memory about scientific facts. I recommend two resources: the Wikipedia page about the genome, and the National Human Genome Research Institute home page.
Sources: Glyn Moody, The Guardian, April 15, 2004; Maria Anderson, The Scientist, February 23, 2004; and various websites