Personal genomics and health
Following the successful first complete sequencing of a human genome, an updated project called 100,000 Genome Project in the UK has been launched by the government through the NHS to sequence the genomes of rare disease and cancer patients as well as their families. The insights gleaned from this data may serve to find treatments, as well as provide a rich source for further research that may be relevant to other disciplines in molecular biology and epidemiology.
I got some of my DNA screened for several select markers, including for Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s, as well as many inherited conditions. Before I could see the results, which could tell me I am at a higher risk for some of these conditions, I had to read a statement explaining what these results could mean, not just for myself, but for members of my family too. Maybe I didn’t really care at the time whether I would be more likely to get Alzheimer’s in my old age, but suddenly I realised it might be extremely relevant for my mother or grandmother.
Genetic information can affect people’s outlook on health, lifestyle, family connections, reproduction and identity. Personally, I found out I am a carrier of a thrombosis factor associated with a 5 times higher risk of blood clotting. It won’t affect me, but it might affect my genetic children if they receive two copies. I also found out I metabolise certain drugs quicker, and others slower. This might be useful in the future if I need to take them. Some are for epilepsy, some for diabetes, and so on.
Ancestry-wise, I expected my mother’s side to be Balkan (Romanian), and my father’s side to be Middle Eastern (Iranian) based on the region assignments at the time, representing population locations as far back as several hundred years. Indeed, I scored 43% Middle Eastern, but only 14% Balkan! Other populations included Ashkenazi Jewish, Italian and East Asian, with most of it being non-specific, vaguely European. I take it in good humour and am very proud of all these findings, but there are people who might have strong reactions to this type of knowledge about their ancestry.
The ethical implications stretch quite far and wide, up and down. The knowledge pertains to trivial matters such as earwax type and caffeine metabolism, but also significant health markers such as those for breast cancer and Alzheimer’s. They pertain to ourselves as individuals, but stretch to our immediate genetic relatives, generations above, generations below and indeed those yet to be born. This is why this information requires careful treatment.
Genetically modified microorganisms
Genetically modified microorganisms (GMM) pose a type of risk on top of their being microorganisms in the first place. This is why GMM have extra protocols in place with more caution given to their handling and disposal.
Within the controlled environment of the lab, GMM behave as they are expected to. However, given the inherent uncertainty around new research practices using genetic material, it is especially worrying if these unknowns should escape the controlled lab environment.
From the get-go, research bacteria are made to not be able to survive in their wild habitat. Should they escape lab conditions, they would not be able to survive.
There are other sophisticated strategies of controlling GMM in the works. Using synthetic amino acids could enable microorganisms to carry out their metabolism in the same way, but rely on amino acids made in the lab, not found in the wild. This would render them unable to propagate in the outside environment.
Auxotrophy refers to the inability to make an essential compound for survival. This could be engineered. If this compound is used in the lab, the organism can be used and allowed to survive; however, once escaped and without this compound, it would die.
Induced lethality involves engineering a lethal response of the organism to a common compound found in the wild but not in the lab.
Gene flow prevention is less extreme, and involves only targeting the DNA of the plasmid that has been genetically modified. By adding a deadly factor to the plasmid that can be switched off in the lab, any escaped microorganism passing the plasmid on to a wild one would result in its death.
Another option might be a switch that controls DNA, so that the exposure to a certain chemical e.g. a sugar, would trigger the response to destroy the DNA, rendering the microorganism unable to live.