The year of the personal genome

Want to buy a slightly used genome?

Back in 2000, Craig Venter and Francis Collins (and Bill Clinton) announced the completion of “the” human genome. Not to take anything away from that achievement, but genomes are just as varied as humans. Whose genome was the human genome? Or to come at it from another direction: if they popped that first draft genome into a baby printer, who would it come out looking like? The Celera version would probably look an awful lot like Craig Venter, because he just couldn’t stop himself from secretly “volunteering” his own DNA to the project.

More recently, Venter gave up any pretense of secrecy and published the most thorough human genome to date: both sets of 23 chromosomes for… Craig Venter. And not only that, it’s published on PLoS Biology, so you can go inspect every nucleotide. Or you can just print out this poster for your room. Think of it as a pin-up for the bio-geek set (I see London, I see France, I see someone’s 16 base pair non-genic heterozygous indel).

So old Craig gets to see all of his genes. Do you want to see yours? If so, you’re in luck, because, as noted in Technology Review, several new companies have set up to service your genomic needs. While you can’t get the royal (i.e. accurate and thorough) treatment that Venter and James Watson get, you can do pretty well.

23andMe, DeCodeMe, and Navigenics all will take something like $1000 from you and send you a bunch of genomic data. As many have observed, the exact value of the data is a sketchy. You may learn some things that will do little more than make you anxious.

Even so, I suspect these services will be a commercial success. There is a desire to know what cards you’ve been dealt that somehow trumps any rational medical value. When it really comes down to it, knowing about your personal DNA is almost more of an aesthetic experience than anything else. So it makes sense that there’s a company that can turn your DNA into art. That may be the most reasonable thing to do with your genes, at least for now. Hang them in your living room.

The best proof I’ve seen that biology is going mainstream is this ad for a PCR machine. Check out the insanely high production values on this video that’s peddling a piece of lab equipment for the white coat crowd. Amazing.

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