Friday, April 14, 2006

Gene variation testing getting better, cheaper

We are approaching a new paradigm in the way human nature is understood (subscription required):

In Switzerland, a group of college students and local laborers sat down for a brief memory test a couple of years ago. They were given 30 words and then asked, five minutes later, to repeat them. On average, they recalled eight.

Last summer, American scientists equipped with a powerful new gene-testing technology gave this simple test an extra twist. DNA samples of the best and worst word-recallers were flown to Phoenix, where their DNA was checked with machines that can scour it for 500,000 genetic variations at lightning speed...

TGen got the DNA samples and used the new chips to scan all of the samples in less than a month. Dr. Stephan says the work turned up more than 100 gene variants that seemed to show up more frequently in people with good episodic memories. The researchers then repeated the experiments in two other groups, including 256 elderly people from the retirement community of Sun City, Ariz.

TGen researchers say they've narrowed their findings to what they believe to be five memory-related genes.

The opportunity to correlate different genetic variations with countless social, physiological, and psychological outcomes is going reveal the etiology of so much of the human diversity generally assumed to be caused by differences in environment.

The price of chips that detect over 300,000 genetic markers is falling rapidly:

While the technology is still expensive, in the past nine months the price of some chips has fallen rapidly to around $750 each, from $1,200, according to Dr. Stephan.
That's roughly in line with Moore's Law. As the chips become less cost prohibitive, sociologists and other researchers will be able to start exploring the relationship between genes and virtually every human trait or behavior imanginable. Amateur enthusiasts will also be able to get into the game.

The memory test on Swiss kids is a short step away from being an IQ test. Predictably there is unease:
If the studies of gene variants do prove as powerful as adherents believe, they are likely to raise thorny societal issues. That's because the same tools that can find variants that raise disease risk might identify genes that influence any measurable human trait, including height, weight or even intelligence.

Why be afraid of the truth? Celebrate diversity. Isn't that the mantra? Many putative diversity boosters want to break the perceived monopoly of the WASP burgher's value system, but they dogmatically maintain that the human mind is a tabula rasa. They do not want to discover the real causes of diversity, nor do they want to entertain diversity of thought.

Putting the controversy aside, the benefits of cheap and quick gene testing will be enormous. If your child has a gene variation that puts him at high risk for obesity, you will be able to form good eating habits early, like starting him on skim milk instead of whole milk. The military will be able to determine branch assignments based on risk tolerance. Those with the genes to thrive in high pressure situations can be put into infantry or artillery while the fainter of heart are assigned to support branches. Research will help the medical community better understand a host of diseases and how to combat them. Parents will be able to guide their kids into athletics or music or chess club based on inherent strengths. The list goes on forever.

Society as a whole will lose a lot of deadweight loss as people align their lives in ways that utilize personal strengths, compensate for weaknesses, and fulfill desires.


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