DNA Around the World

American Genes Don’t Exist

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted November 4, 2009 in DNA Around the World, DNA in General

image Congratulations to Meb Keflezighi of Eritrean descent, who won the New York City Marathon last Sunday and was the first American to do so since 1982!

Why did I mention that he was born in Eritrea? Because critics say that an immigrant like Keflezighi who moved to the U.S. at age 12 isn’t a legitimate American.

A post on Letsrun.com said:

Give us all a break. It’s just another African marathon winner.

How about making that African-American?

Silly me. I thought that naturalized American citizens equal American citizens at birth with the same rights and privileges (with the exception of getting to be the President of the United States). Leaving that debate aside, however, the belief that East Africans are genetically endowed for marathon running has also clouded Keflezighi’s celebration.

The success of distance runners from Kenya and Ethiopia has fostered a lore of East Africans as genetically gifted, unbeatable, dominant because of their biology. Scientists have looked for — but not found — genes specific to East Africans that could account for their distance ability, said John Hoberman, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who studies race and sports.

Truly American? Debate Dogs a Triumph in the Marathon – NYTimes.com

No doubt Keflezighi has genes which enhance his physiological capabilities for endurance and other traits found in winning marathoners. This does not mean that Keflezighi is any more or less American than other non-East African runners who have the same genes.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “nationality” in two parts:


noun (pl. nationalities) 1 the status of belonging to a particular nation. 2 an ethnic group forming a part of one or more political nations.

Even though ethnic groups are mentioned, the U.S. is clearly a country of many ethnic groups so genes should not be part of the debate when discussing whether someone is American or not.

Quite frankly, I’m not even sure what makes a person American and I don’t think anyone else does either. I hold an American passport and spent the years between ages 6 and 26 in the U.S. I’ve lived in six different countries in the past 10 years and as a result, my national identity is slightly muddled. My son is even more confused. He holds an American passport as well but has never lived in the U.S although he’s lived in four different countries in his seven years. He was born in Japan so some days he says that he’s Japanese and now that he lives in Singapore, he sometimes says he’s Singaporean. I’m sure some people would say he’s not American at all.

It might be simpler to say we’re global citizens with ties to more than one country. Truth be told, I’m proud to say I’m Chinese-American with the accent to prove it.

Edited to add this video of Meb Keflezighi on David Letterman:



Biopolis Street, Singapore

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted July 27, 2009 in DNA Around the World

One of the coolest places in Singapore – Biopolis, centre for biomedical sciences in Asia.



The Genome building houses swissnex Singapore (previously Swiss House Singapore) and the Genome Institute of Singapore.

(>> Start a discussion!)


Is genetic testing useful?

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted August 31, 2008 in DNA Around the World, DNA Testing, DNA and the Law

In The Malaysia Star today, Dr. Teo Soo Hwang explores genetic testing as it applies to the BRCA gene for breast and ovarian cancer – Can genetic testing be useful? The paper is printing “a series of four articles by the Cancer Research Initiatives Foundation (CARIF) that explores how genes are linked to diseases, the relationship between genes and cancer, and what is genetic testing and counselling.”

By the way, Malaysia’s government is currently considering a DNA Identification Bill that would require people charged with a crime to submit DNA samples. While this type of law is nothing new in other countries, such as the UK, the introduction of this bill in Malaysia at this time is part of a political brouhaha involving opposition figure Anwar Ibrahim who has been accused of sexual misconduct. His supporters fear that if he were forced to give a DNA sample, it would be tampered with and falsely incriminating results would be submitted to the courts.

Om Prakash says at malaysiakini.com:

The onus must be on those who want to freely give their DNA sample to prove their innocence. Let us not be threatened with another draconian law like the ISA for political and law- enforcement expediency.

We are not ready to just trust anybody yet.

Conclusion: Genetic testing is useful to some and not so useful for others.

Other DNA articles of interest in The Malaysia Star:

Photo credit: Eye on Malaysia, Lukman Kusuma



Eye on DNA Headlines for 22 April 2008

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted April 22, 2008 in DNA Around the World, DNA Testing, DNA and the Law

  • Rick at My Biotech Life hosts Gene Genie : the better late than never personal genomics special edition.
  • Please welcome Pamela Ronald at Tomorrow’s Table to The DNA Network. She’s our 53rd member!
  • Congratulations to Trisha on the relaunch of the Ideas for Women blog.
  • Molecular biologists are in the movies. Peggy at Biology in Science Fiction looks at Splice starring Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley scheduled for release in 2009.
  • psychicAuckland University professor Andrew Shelling says personal genomics companies are offering “health horoscopes.” On the other hand, he admits that access to genetic testing in New Zealand is very limited.

    “New Zealand is doing an appalling job of providing adequate genetic testing. We’re well behind Australia and the rest of the world.”

    So what’s an info-seeking person to do?

  • Here’s a genetic genealogy quagmire. DNA testing of children from the polygamist religious group in West Texas to sort our* out family relationships has commenced. Problem is, many of the children are closely related and have parents who are genetically related as well.

    Because of the group’s isolation, Dr. Einum said he thought it was likely that the parents of any given child were related by a common ancestor, and that any man examined as a possible father could share genetic traits with many other men in the group.

*No, I’m not affiliated with the FLDS.

(1 comment)


Affymetrix and Illumina Moving Gene Chip Manufacturing to Singapore

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted March 19, 2008 in Business of DNA, DNA Around the World

beltsHere’s one more sign that companies involved with personal genomics may be tightening their belts. Gene chip makers Affymetrix and Illumina are both outsourcing manufacturing from the U.S. to Singapore.

Affymetrix president Kevin King:

Affymetrix is consolidating its manufacturing operations to further increase operational efficiencies, enabling us to remain more competitive in the marketplace. Our recent manufacturing advances have enabled us to produce more (GeneChip) array volumes with a smaller manufacturing footprint.

One of the Affymetrix products to be manufactured in Singapore is the new Genome-Wide Human SNP Array 6.0, which can analyze more than 1.8 million DNA markers.

Affymetrix has already begun laying off workers in their West Sacramento, California manufacturing plant and will be making the move to Singapore by the end of 2008 where they opened a 150,000-square-foot manufacturing plant in 2006. Possible reasons for outsourcing genetic test manufacturing to Singapore include:

  • Cheaper labor costs – production workers in Singapore averaged $8.55/hour in 2006 compared to $23.82 per hour in the U.S.
  • Lower tax rates
  • Faster-growing demand for arrays in China and India make manufacturing in Singapore more cost effective

China’s genomic biotechnology is definitely on the rise. At the beginning of this year, the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI) announced the complete sequencing of the fourth human genome in the world. BGI also formed a partnership with whole genome sequencing company, Knome. In terms of the local personal genomics markets in China and India, there may be great potential but not for the vast majority of people. For the time being, only the rich and famous in developing countries will have access and the chance to be “exploited” like the rest of the elite, according to Jesse Reynolds at The Cutting Edge News.

In the end, it’s all about the bottom line. Affymetrix chief financial officer John Batty:

I think from an economics standpoint, we have an incentive to get it to at least 50 percent [of Singapore plant capacity] because we can shield half of our revenue from the U.S. tax rate by manufacturing arrays in Singapore and shipping those to non-U.S. customers.

I have no doubts about Singapore producing high quality products for use in genetics/genomics. On the other hand, when outsourcing extends to China and other countries with a less educated workforce, it would be worth remembering that standards of quality control vary between countries. For proof, check out what writer James Fallows observed with airplane refueling techniques in Japan vs. China.

plane refueling japanplane refueling china

Hey, whatever gets the job done, right?

(>> Start a discussion!)


Latest Launches at 23andMe

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted January 22, 2008 in DNA Around the World, DNA Testing

Starting today, 23andMe services are now available in Canada and Europe. (press release) The Guardian attempts to inject a few words of warning to potential customers by quoting Dr. Helen Wallace of GeneWatch:

“Our main concern is that the human genome is set to become a massive marketing scam,” she said, adding that special diet foods and pills had been promoted on the back of tests. “Genetic tests like these are not regulated and the science is still poorly understood – so there is a real danger people could be misled about their health.”

My question is: What isn’t a “scam” nowadays? Do I really need 10 different shades of eyeshadow? Does my five-year-old really need the whole collection of Ben 10 toys (which will never be amassed in our lifetime)? Should we be eating low fat cookies or high protein bread?

You want to know the truth? Everyone’s out to “scam” us. You have to make your own informed decisions about what you’re going to buy into. For some, it could be a genetic test for balding. For others, it could be a $350,000 personal genome sequence. Take some responsibility and initiative and figure out what’s right for you! /rant over

spittle bug spittoon

By the way, 23andMe has also launched their blog, the spittoon. Pop by and say “hi”! And maybe convince them to join The DNA Network (now numbering 41).



China Now Exporting Genomic Biotechnology

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted January 14, 2008 in Business of DNA, DNA Around the World

beijing 2008Early last week, Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI) announced the complete sequencing of the fourth human genome in the world. Later the same week, whole genome sequencing company, Knome, announced a partnership with BGI where BGI will provide genome sequencing, assembly, and annotation capabilities. Knome will be responsible for analytic tools, security protocols, and genetic interpretation services. According the press release, BGI has over 120 sequencing machines, 10 supercomputers, and 500 terabytes of storage.

Given all the quality control issues surrounding Chinese-made products in Summer 2007, I wouldn’t blame anyone for doubting the quality of genomics in China as well. And although I’d already placed my bets on Singapore being the biotech hub of Asia because of my own positive experience with science in Singapore and scientists from the city state, it appears that I may be mistaken.

Nature Biotechnology reports that China is making great strides in health biotech and with a billion-patient market, who can resist? Shenzhen SiBiono GeneTech Co. developed Gendicine, the world’s first commercialized gene therapy for head and neck cancers. Shanghai United Cell Biotech is making the only tablet cholera vaccing available worldwide. Other Chinese biotech companies are working on vaccines for HIV, Japanese Encephalitis, SARS, and pandemic avian influenza (H5N1). And, of course, BGI has been sequencing genomes.

Development of health-related biotechnology in China is not without its obstacles. Some of the issues raised include:

  • China’s uncertain financial system
  • Rigid restrictions on exports
  • Quality control
  • Intellectual property rights
  • Lack of trust between China-based and international partners
  • Barriers created by language, travel, culture, and project management styles.

For biotechnology companies looking to expand their business in China, Stephen M. Sammut of Burril & Company has this advice:

…the country’s industry might be better served if Chinese residents in the West built transnational companies with a footprint in both China and the West.

While this practice is already common, regulations and taxation policies to encourage this approach would address many of the concerns of private and public capital, assure prospective alliance partners, and add depth to the pool of experienced managers. Such an approach would also promote China as a co-development partner rather than a purely low-cost venue to international companies to contract services.

So it appears that Knome is on the cutting edge of both genomics and international business. Because labor costs in China are much lower than in the US, partnering with BGI will surely improve the bottom line as well. Another smart move for a company that’s charging $350,000 and more for whole genome sequencing.

via Innovations Report

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How the UK uses DNA from the National Database

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted January 13, 2008 in DNA Around the World, DNA Fun

IMG 6535
Seen on Queensway, London

Crime Prevention Advice

Your Safer
Neighbourhood Team

Protecting your street
DNA property marking

So that’s what they do with DNA in the UK National DNA Database They use it to mark property! ;)

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Beijing Genomics Institute Sequences Fourth Human Genome in the World

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted January 7, 2008 in DNA Around the World

Chinese scientists at the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI) have completed the fourth human genome to be sequenced worldwide. The first two were James Watson and J. Craig Venter, the third was a researcher of Han Chinese descent in October 2007, and this fourth genome was a Chinese volunteer.

chinese babyThe Chinese-British collaborative BGI genome project, called The Yanhuang Project, aims to map the 100 Chinese genomes. It’s not clear whether all of them will be expected to be as generous as the Chinese volunteer who donated approximately 1.3 million US dollars to the project. (Note: Harvard’s Personal Genome Project will not be expecting their volunteers to donate anything except their DNA, tissue samples, and medical data.)

The Yanhuang Project has three phases:

  1. To sequence a Chinese individual’s genome that serves as the reference.
  2. To sequence at least 99 more individuals’ genomes to construct a Chinese genetic polymorphism map.
  3. To study the results of the first two phases and apply the findings to medical science.

Researchers plan to use the Chinese genome database to “solve problems related to Chinese-specific genetic diseases*” as well as improve diagnosis, prediction, and therapy.

*What Chinese-specific genetic diseases might they be referring to? Unlike the Ashkenazi Jewish community, I was unaware of any hereditary diseases that disproportionately affected the Chinese population. Maybe I just don’t know because most of the studies conducted in China stay in China and aren’t even indexed in PubMed.

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“Jacket Children” and DNA Testing in Jamaica

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted October 23, 2007 in DNA Around the World, DNA Testing

A reader of the Jamaica Cleaner is proposing that everyone looking to be married in Jamaica undergo DNA testing first.

The Editor, Sir:

Based on the ‘jacket’ situation in Jamaica, DNA testing may become a way of life. If we do not know who our fathers are we may end up marrying our cousins, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and even our fathers.

Under these circumstances I would not recommend anyone get married without both partners doing DNA tests to see if they are blood-related. This is one situation where the women can’t blame the men for. Ladies if you have only one sex partner every nine months then you won’t have to worry about who the daddy is.

I am, etc.,


jamaica childAccording to Out-of-Wedlock Births by Mark Abrahamson,

When people suspect that a Jamaican child’s social and biological fathers are not the same, but the child is publicly presented as the offspring of the social father, the child is called a “jacket” [emphasis added] in local gossip. The imagery implied is that a jacket child is something a husband “wears” to protect his honor.

Photo: “A second grade boy at the Christiana Primary School [in Jamaica] waves and flashes a brilliant smile while our team builds a new shelter nearby.” ~ Jake Brewer

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