Monday, April 21, 2008

Gene business

In the fascinating domain of modern genetics, one of the most exciting activities costs next to nothing. I'm referring to the possibility of purchasing and reading a few books on this subject by Richard Dawkins. But other interesting branches of the gene business can be far more costly.

Apart from the fact that they are both celebrated scientists in the field of genetics, what do these two men have in common? Well, they are among the rare human beings whose personal genomes have been totally mapped.

Several US companies are now offering services in this domain, but the fees are rather high. [Click any of the following company logos to visit their websites.] If I understand correctly, it suffices to send them a sealed tube of your saliva.

The Knome company in Massachusetts offers you the same treatment as for the above-mentioned scientists: that's to say, your entire genome will be sequenced, analyzed and interpreted. But the job will set you back a third of a million dollars.

The services offered by Navigenics, 23andMe and deCODE are far simpler.

They are cheaper, too, starting around the thousand bucks level. Navigenics and 23andMe are located in California, whereas deCODE is based in Iceland.

In all cases, the results are supposed to provide you with interesting data about potential health problems caused by the inheritance of dubious genes. In certain cases, you might be able to compare your genetic profile with that of friends and relatives, and maybe acquire genealogical information.

At the low end of the scale, for a few hundred dollars, you can send a saliva sample to the so-called DNA Ancestry Project, but I'm not sure that you can necessarily expect rewarding results.

The ideal approach to the question of the likelihood of inherited health problems still consists of compiling family health data, such as the causes of death indicated on death records. And it's hard to see how DNA analysis could provide us with more meaningful facts than those obtained through conventional genealogical research.

Personally, I'll no doubt take a closer look at the DNA Ancestry Project, in the hope of obtaining enlightenment, if possible, on a genealogical question that has always intrigued me. My maternal background was marked by a striking marriage between a respectable and industrious man, probably Scottish, named Charles Walker [1807-1860] and a younger Irish girl, Ann Hickey [1822-1898], whose father and at least one brother were notorious criminals. [Click here to visit a website about these ancestors.] I've often wondered whether it might be possible, today, to determine how their respective genes were allocated to various descendants, including myself. Sometimes, I end up thinking that I might have received a disproportionately large dose of bad Hickey genes, making me rather different to more respectable relatives with nice Walker genes. Or vice versa. But this reasoning could well be bad science. Rather than a question of bad genes.

AFTERTHOUGHT It would be fitting that my relatives might have their word to say on this fundamental question... but I'm not at all sure that they read Antipodes, and I'm even less certain that these dear folk (who didn't even wish to help me obtain retirement benefits from the supposedly-rich Australian government) might like to get involved in DNA analysis. At times, I feel that I should put a practical cross on my Australian past. Since my French naturalization, I see sadly that this is actually happening.

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