2007 August

DNA Quote: Dame Barbara Ward

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted August 31, 2007 in DNA Quotes and Excerpts

green leaves sun

Dame Barbara Ward 1914-1981, British Journalist, Economist, Conservationist:

We cannot cheat on DNA. We cannot get round photosynthesis. We cannot say I am not going to give a damn about phytoplankton. All these tiny mechanisms provide the preconditions of our planetary life. To say we do not care is to say in the most literal sense that ”we choose death.”

via Weird Facts

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Eye on DNA Headlines for 31 August 2007

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted August 31, 2007 in DNA and Disease, Eye on DNA Headlines

  • On September 5, 4:25 pm EDT, deCODE genetics will have a live webcast of CEO Kari Stefansson’s presentation at the Thomas Weisel Partners Annual Healthcare Conference. Details on the deCODE genetics investors page.
  • Check it out! Eye on DNA is listed in the sidebar of the CDC Genomics & Health Weekly Update. Woohoo! Strange. They replaced the link to Eye on DNA just a few hours ago with something from Duke. Does anyone know what happened? I’ll have to email to ask. Update: What a relief! I didn’t get dissed after all. They had to do some reshuffling and Eye on DNA will be up next week. Yay!
  • Thank you, Dr. Bill Koslosky, for mentioning Eye on DNA at Lexicillin QD.
  • Dr. Misha Angrist at Genome Boy has become the 23rd member of The DNA Network! (Subscribe to The DNA Network RSS feed.)
  • thai no smokingAt Smokefree.gov, one of the pieces of trivia to convince you to quit smoking is:

    Did you know?…that the increased risk for developing prostate cancer as a smoker disappears over time once you quit?

    Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for lung cancer. A recent study of eight current smokers, 12 former smokers, and four never-smokers found that smoking permanently damages DNA repair genes as well as changing the activity of some genes. These changes in gene expression could account for the higher risk of lung cancer in people who’ve already quit smoking. (MedPage Today)

    Update: Walter at Highlight Health has more on what happens when you quit smoking.

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Google Answers DNA – Significance of the Double Helix

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted August 30, 2007 in DNA @ Google Answers

Google Questioner:

Is there any significance in it [DNA] being a double helix? Wouldn’t a 2 dimensional “ladder” be able to perform the same job of division and replication?

Google Answer:

…I direct your attention to James Watson’s textbook, “Molecular Biology of the Gene, Fifth Edition.” …Watson explains that the double helix structure results from the way that hydrogen bonds connect the base pairs of the each strand and because of how base pairs “stack” on top of each other. Moreover, the twisty double helix shape is essential for the stability of the DNA molecule.

BTW, play the Nobelprize.org Double Helix Game where “you can make copies of DNA molecules and find out which organism the genetic material belongs to!”

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US Military Discriminates Against Service Members With Genetic Diseases

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted August 30, 2007 in DNA Testing, DNA in General, Jobs Involving DNA

air force studentsService members of the US Armed Forces may risk their lives for their country but if they’ve got a disease-causing genetic mutation, they are shown the door. Karen Kaplan at the LA Times writes on a disturbing US armed forces policy to deny benefits to servicemen and women who have congenital or hereditary conditions unless they’ve already served 8 years.

Kathy Hudson of the Genetics and Public Policy Center at Johns Hopkins University:

You could be in the military and be a six-pack-a-day smoker, and if you come down with emphysema, ‘That’s OK. We’ve got you covered. But if you happen to have a disease where there is an identified genetic contribution, you are screwed.

It’s an antiquated policy that was meant to prevent people from enlisting for health benefits knowing they would later develop a serious and/or life-threatening condition. Ironically, genetic discrimination against civilian employees in the federal government was banned in 2000. The same could happen to all insurance policy holders if the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2007 isn’t passed into law but even if it is, it won’t apply to military personnel.

To keep their military patients from being denied health benefits, doctors are now advising their patients to avoid genetic testing of all forms, including private testing. Dr. Mark Nunes, who headed the Air Force Genetics Center’s DNA diagnostic laboratory at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi:

If someone called me up with regard to genetic testing, I had to say, ‘That might not be something you want to pursue.”

You could get court-martialed if it were revealed that you had sought medical treatment or testing outside the system.

This is shocking and dismaying. How soon will it be before the US armed forces (or any other country) begin genetic screening of recruits? As if it’s not already hard enough to get qualified people to serve. Who would want to join the military knowing they may not get the benefits they deserve, especially health benefits which is undeniably one of the most important.

For more on genetic discrimination against job applicants, see my previous post – Want a job? Submit your DNA.

More on genetic discrimination in the military:

NB: The 81st Medical Group operating out of Keesler Air Force Base has the only medical genetics center in the Department of Defense.



Genomes at the Wellcome Collection

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted August 29, 2007 in DNA Fun, DNA in General

The Wellcome Collection was opened this past June by Dr. James Watson and I finally got a chance to visit yesterday with my five-year-old son. We were both fascinated by the displays; he liked the elephant and whale hearts while I, of course, liked the Genomes section of the Medicine Now exhibit.

Here are some photos from our visit. Click to see larger images.

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Sound Chairs upon entering the exhibit (left); a representation of the information contained in all 23 pairs of the human chromosome, to the right is a working microassay robot used in the Human Genome Project.

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A display case of various personal DNA tests and kits collected in 2006-2007, including reports from African Ancestry, Oxford Ancestors, GeneTree, and a DNA embedded necklace from DesigNA.

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Andrea Duncan’s Twenty Three Pairs artwork using images of an “odd sock drawer” and Barber DNA by Robin Blackledge.

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Anagram by Julie Cockburn featuring DNA bases.

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Jelly Baby by Mauro Perucchetti representing a cloned human. (And, no, my son is not a clone! ;) )

For more, see the Wellcome Collection official descriptions of these key exhibits.

Update: More photos of the Wellcome Collection at Flickr.

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Is the Pink or Blue early baby gender DNA test accurate?

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted August 29, 2007 in DNA Testing

In 2005, the Early Baby Gender Mentor DNA test was launched. Since then, test maker Acu-Gen has been sued in a Class Action lawsuit claiming “misrepresentations, fraud, and/or other improper business practices.” Following on the heels of the Early Baby Gender Mentor, the Pink or Blue test uses the same technque to test for fetal DNA in maternal blood, analyzed from a dried blood spot, to see if there’s any from the Y chromosome – the presence of the Y chromosome means boy, none means girl. The test can be used as early as six weeks with a purported accuracy of greater than 98%.

Aside from issues of accuracy, tests such as these are also raising concerns that parents may use them for gender selection aka family balancing. From Elisa Hatigan of Subversive Writer on “gender disappointment”:

In North America, Gender Disappointment has less to do with family/cultural traditions and expectations and more to do with personal fears and fantasies, but nonetheless can be very traumatic for a woman. Some women simply cannot cope with the thought of taking care of a particular gender. They might have been abused by men as children, or had traumatic relationships with their fathers or men in general, and sometimes they will try to miscarry or contemplate suicide than give birth to a baby of the “enemy” gender.

I asked myself what I would do. …Would I use genetic testing to find out early? Yes, definitely.

Have you or has someone you know taken an early gender DNA test? Karen Kaplan, a reporter at the Los Angeles Times, wants to hear your stories. Please leave a comment here or email her directly at Karen.Kaplan@latimes.com.

Update: Terry Carmichael, VP at Consumer Genetics, manufacturer of the Pink or Blue early baby gender DNA test answers my questions in this interview for Eye on DNA.



Geeky DNA T-Shirts: Human Genome Project

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted August 28, 2007 in Geeky DNA T-shirts

humangenome t shirt

Today’s geeky DNA t-shirt of the Human Genome Project comes from THE SCIENCE TeeCHER. Hey, is that my DNA sequence on there?!

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Eye on DNA Headlines for 28 August 2007 and a Poll on DNA Storage

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted August 28, 2007 in Eye on DNA Headlines, Polls About DNA

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Parents Feel Guilty Over Giving Children Bad Genes

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted August 27, 2007 in DNA in General, Genetic Engineering

stephen chopsticks and broccoliABC News: Picky Eating May Be in Kids’ Genes:

Having trouble persuading your child to eat broccoli or spinach? You may have only yourself to blame.

According to a study published this month in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, neophobia – or the fear of new foods – is mostly in the genes.

“Children could actually blame their mothers for this,” said Dr. Jane Wardle, director of the Health Behavior Unit at University College London, one of the study’s authors.

“Parents should not feel like they’re doing something wrong if they keep trying but their child is not overjoyed to be eating Brussels sprouts,” said Marlene Schwartz, deputy director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University.

@#! So are parents supposed to feel guilty for passing on “faulty” genes or give in and blame their genes instead, absolving our conscious selves of all guilt? We need to get our heads clear on this concept because the more we learn about our genetic make-up, the more worries we’ll have to face when it comes to the genes we’ve unintentionally doled out to our offspring. Some families are dealing with this dilemma already.

Last year, when the UK Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) approved preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) to screen embryos for BRCA1 and BRCA2, genes for breast and ovarian cancers, Karin Cohn and her family were featured. Karin carries the BRCA1 gene and both her sister and mother have had breast cancer. Karin’s mother Pat Gilbor:

I feel guilty. Rationally I know I shouldn’t, but emotionally I do

Karin herself also worries about the potential of having given her daughter Sophie the BRCA1 gene and supports the use of PGD:

If I had had the option, I would have done it. And I would continue to do it until I got a clear embryo.

It would mean I wouldn’t have to worry about my child in the future.

In many ways, I think this is a reflection of current parenting culture. We are so keen to control every aspect of our children’s lives and give them every advantage we can that it naturally extends to their health.

Just think about it for a second. It makes no sense to blame ourselves for the genes we’ve given our children because we can’t and did not select the genes that were distributed to them when they were conceived (with the exception of a limited list of genes using PGD).

Michael J. Sandel points out just what’s wrong with this way of thinking in The Case Against Perfection (now a book):

Parents become responsible for choosing, or failing to choose, the right traits for their children.

And yet, even if and when genetic engineering for “perfect” children becomes widely available, we’ll still be unable to control the way our children’s genes interact with the environment in which they grow up.

Being a good parent means knowing what’s important and what can be improved within reason. When it comes to genetic material, I accept that my child isn’t perfect. After all, I may be responsible for giving my son the genes of genius but there’s no guarantee he got just as good from his daddy’s side of the family!

NB: For the record, broccoli is my five-year-old’s favorite vegetable.

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Fake Names in the UK National DNA Database

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted August 27, 2007 in DNA and the Law

The UK national DNA database is experiencing more bad press. Over 550,000 entries in the database are believed to be inaccurate:

  1. Some people are giving false names when their DNA is collected.
  2. There are spelling errors, incorrect addresses, and other inaccuracies.
  3. DNA profiles from over 150,000 innocent children are still on the database.

Shami Chakrabarti, the director of civil rights group Liberty:

It is bad enough that we have a DNA database stuffed with innocents not charged with any offence, containing too many children and too great a percentage of ethnic minorities.

starbucks nameNow it turns out we don’t know the accuracy of the data. How many Postman Pats and Donald Ducks have entries on a system worthy of the Keystone Cops?

Not to be flippant about this very serious issue, but it reminds me of Starbucks fake names. Given my own unusual name, I don’t know why I’ve never used a “latte name.” I guess I shouldn’t start when or if my DNA is ever collected.

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