Will it look good over my sofa?

Thanks to Bertalan Meskó of ScienceRoll, I yet again find that I’ve been living under a large and radio-opaque rock. Somehow I missed out on the whole personal genomics craze.

Yep, that’s right. Coming soon to a posh research clinic near you, and brought to you thanks in part to decades of hard work on the part of the Human Genome Project: a sleek, trendy, imminently framable-for-display map of your very own personal genome. Impress your kids! Be the envy of all your friends! Be the very first on your block to own a really long and inscrutable document which details, among other things, how likely you are to suffer early-onset male pattern baldness!

But wait! There’s more!

Act now and you’ll also receive full Web 2.0 integration! You heard right! Your genome can be the next big meme! But hurry! You don’t want to be the last kid on Facebook Myspace Twitter Pownce to make your genetic mapping part of the digital metaconscious, do you?

In all seriousness, though, I’m not sure quite what to make of this.

Is this just a post modern take on colonics and full-body imaging? In other words, is it just a snake-oil-and-mummy-dust exercise in superstitious gimmickry and pop-culture status symbology? Jason Bobe says no. Conan O’Brien et al disagree. Of course, let’s not forget that ours, collectively, is a culture that grew bored with space travel after one successful moon landing, but clings with meth-addled raptness to every new development in the on-going saga of Paris Hilton. I’m almost afraid that even asking whether this is legitimate science or flavor-of-the-month pigswill is perhaps giving us too much credit.

Then there are a couple of little details to be ironed out. (You know, once we’ve managed to scrounge a quick $20,000 from the sofa cushions to pay for the sequencing.)

First, do I own it? I mean, it is my genome, after all. But then, the vast majority of my genetic data is shared with every other human being–not to mention every other form of life–on the planet. Therefore, could or should I be able to patent my genome or otherwise legally secure exclusive rights to the data that fundamentally represents me? Or should it be part of the public domain, another entry in a Wikipedia of genetic information? Should I even care, since I’m not really profiting from it anyway?

Next, there’s commercial involvement to consider. How much of this data are we prepared to have filter into the hands of corporate entities? If the answer is anything other than, “All of it”, then we need to scrap the whole idea and start over with something more innocuous, like stamp-collecting. The Web has taught us a lot of things (many of which don’t bear repeating in polite society). But most resounding of all is this lesson: Nothing is private. And if you think AdSense is pervasive and laser-targeted now, wait till Google has your genetic code on file.

And then there’s the $64,000 question: What the hell do we do with a map of our personal genome? Its value as a diagnostic tool is directly proportional to the capacity of the medical community to act on the information stored therein. That is, what use is it to know that I have an inherent genetic predisposition to Alzheimer’s if there’s nothing I can do about it. The situation is roughly analogous to the early days of in-car radar detectors; for the first time, consumers were able to buy a $300 device that could be hidden in a car which would emit a loud beep whenever they got a speeding ticket. The phrase ‘useless as rubber lips on a woodpecker’ springs inexorably to mind…

Anyone up for a game of political football?


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