How the Personal Genome Project Could Unlock the Mysteries of Life

George Church: sequencing 100,000 genomes

George Church is dyslexic, narcoleptic, and a vegan. He is married with one daughter, weighs about 210 pounds, and has worn a pioneer-style bushy beard for decades. He has elevated levels of creatine kinase in his blood, the consequence of a heart attack. He enjoys waterskiing, photography, rock climbing, and singing in his church choir. His mother’s maiden name is Strong. He was born on August 28, 1954.

If this all seems like too much information, well, blame Church himself. As the director of the Lipper Center for Computational Genetics at Harvard Medical School, he has a thing about openness, and this information (and plenty more, down to his signature) is posted online at arep.med.harvard.edu/gmc/pers.html. By putting it out there for everyone to see, Church isn’t just baiting identity thieves. He’s hoping to demonstrate that all this personal information — even though we consider it private and somehow sacred — is actually fairly meaningless, little more than trivia. “The average person shouldn’t be interested in this stuff,” he says. “It’s a philosophical exercise in what identity is and why we should care about that.”

As Church sees it, the only real utility to his personal information is as data that reflects his phenotype — his physical traits and characteristics. If your genome is the blueprint of your genetic potential written across 6 billion base pairs of DNA, your phenome is the resulting edifice, how you actually turn out after the environment has had its say, influencing which genes get expressed and which traits repressed. Imagine that we could collect complete sets of data — genotype and phenotype — for a whole population. You would very quickly begin to see meaningful and powerful correlations between particular genetic sequences and particular physical characteristics, from height and hair color to disease risk and personality.

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