Genome Sequencing: What’s the Cost for Knowing Clues to Baby’s Future?

Photo by: Sean Dreilinger. Creative Commons. (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Baby’s keepsakes: Tiny footprint, lock of hair, and a DNA sequence? As human genome sequencing grows faster and cheaper, how much should parents learn about their babies’ genetic blueprints? In this recent NPR report, bioethicists and other researchers weigh in on what might happen if whole genome sequencing becomes commonplace.

On the positive side, knowing this data could help doctors screen for numerous genetic conditions at birth (or even earlier), and take steps to improve or correct them. Dr. Alan Guttmacher, director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, told NPR that whole genome sequencing at birth could profoundly shape individuals’ medical care and personal decisions to “have an impact on truly lifelong health.”

However, skeptics warned that sequencing could saddle families with confusing or unwanted information:

There’s plenty of evidence that parents already often overreact to the relatively small amount of data that they’re getting from little spots of blood collected at birth. Bioethicist Mark Rothstein of the University of Louisville says the tests can lead to so-called vulnerable child syndrome.

These children “are viewed as medically vulnerable and medically frail,” Rothstein says. “And so while all the other kids are riding bikes and climbing trees, these kids are sort of sitting in a corner. So they can’t even enjoy a normal childhood.”

via Genome Sequencing For Babies Brings Knowledge And Conflicts : Shots – Health News : NPR.

On a related note, it’s interesting to see how rapidly genome-sequencing technology has developed in just the last few years. Here’s a small (and by no means comprehensive) sampling of articles on that topic:

1 machine, 4 weeks now enough to sequence human genome, ars technica, 08/10/2009

The $1,000 Human Genome: Are We There Yet? Scientific American, 01/10/2012

The $1,000 Genome, and the New Problem of Having Too Much Information, PopSci, 02/27/2012

Nanopore genome sequencer makes its debut (Technique promises it will produce a human genome in 15 minutes), Nature, 02/17/2012

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Botany Q & A: All Chris Martine is Saying … Is Give Plants a Chance

Whenever my four-year-old comes across a picture of a baby animal—any animal, even a beady-eyed, tongue-flicking rat snake breaking out of its shell—she responds with an Awwwww. She even wanted to make a home for the slug we encountered on the sidewalk the other day, proclaiming, “It’s so cute.” Like many kids, she’s obsessed with animals. Christopher Martine doesn’t mind people of any age fawning over fauna, but he thinks it’s time that his own field, botany, gets a little love, as well. That’s what has led the Bucknell University biology professor to create the video series, Plants are Cool, Too!

“One of the missions here is to sort of spread the word that the plant kingdom is a really important driver of all the processes that life on Earth depends on, but not do that in a way that’s sort of stale and people roll their eyes and say yeah yeah yeah,” Martine says. Instead, he’s using what he calls a “guerilla botany” approach to “draw people in with the coolest stories about plants [and] also to highlight the person or people doing the botanical research.”

In the second and most recent episode, which has been posted on YouTube, Martine travels to the fossil beds of Clarkia, Idaho, to look at 15 million-year-old leaves preserved between layers of rock. Then he interviews a group of University of Idaho scientists who have been studying the leaves and working to prove that it’s possible to extract DNA from them. (He also eats a baked potato, which hopefully wasn’t quite so old.)

“That’s kind of a controversial idea that the DNA from those specimens can actually be accessed and sequenced,” notes Martine. “Not every scientist actually believes it’s even possible to extract DNA that old. This would really set back the clock for how far back we’ve gone with DNA technology.”

Martine talked to me recently about his hopes for the video project: Continue reading