Genes are not a mirror upon our souls

I have put 1 million markers (from a combination of Illumina SNP-chips) of mine online. I’m also going to put my sequence online when I get it done. Why? What do I gain from this? Hopefully I don’t gain anything from it. By this, I mean that the only major information that is actionable in a life altering sense is likely to be disease related. Though I’ve been contacted about possible loss of function mutations through imputation, so far my genotype has not illuminated any more risk susceptibilities. Rather, I am trying to make it clear by my openness that your genetic information has more power when pooled together with that of others, and small one step in creating that vast pool of information is to demystifying sharing it, and practicing what you (that is, me) preach. My soul is not in my genes, and certainly my genotype reflects me with far less obvious fidelity than a photograph would. By this, I mean that there are many traits that one could predict about me, but many one would be at a loss to predict.

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Elephants without tusks?


Image credit: Mister-E.

It has recently come to my attention that there is wide variation in the frequency of tuskless male elephants across populations. These individuals are termed maknas. To review, while both male and female African elephants have tusks, prominent tusks are only a feature of males in Asian elephants. Yet among wild Sri Lankans, which number on the order of ~5,000 individuals, tuskless males are ~90% of the population! Similar population frequencies have been reported in the few Chinese elephants than remain in Yunnan province. Tuskless apparently also may be a heritable trait among some African elephant populations. I think you know where I’m going with this. Seeing that China’s demand side appetite for ivory is resulting in more poaching, and is unlikely to abate over the next 10 years or so, the heritable variation which results in lack of tusks in elephants may be a possible glimmer of hope. Of course, elephant generations are long, so I’m not offering an adaptive panacea. Just a likely prediction.

Literature: Tuskless bulls in Asian elephant Elephas maximus. History and population genetics of a man-made phenomenon.

Addendum: I am aware that this does not address habit destruction.

Evolution in everything

After reading Nature’s Oracle (yes, a lengthy review will be up soonish) I am even more struck by how evolutionary process suffused W. D. Hamilton’s whole worldview. This resulted in some peculiar conflicts over his career with those who wished to partition evolutionary and biological processes away from the domain of humans. Of course Hamilton himself focused for most of his scientific life on non-human phenomena in the specific details (e.g., the utilization of hymenoptera to illustrate inclusive fitness), but he always believed that his evolutionary insights were general. This makes sense in light of his idolization of R. A. Fisher, for whom evolutionary genetics was a practical science (he was a eugenicist). One of the biographical details which receives great attention in Nature’s Oracle is Hamilton’s untimely approach of an anthropology department the early 1960s in the interest of pursuing graduate work on the evolution of social behavior. It was a reflection of his absolute naivete as to the political climate during this period.

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On genetic privacy

Larry Moran has a post up, Who Owns Your Genome?, where he mentions me apropos of the HeLa genome disclosure:

In my opinion, there is no excuse for publishing this genome sequence without consent.

Razib Khan disagrees. He thinks that he can publish his genome sequence without obtaining consent from anyone else and I assume he feels the same way about the sequence of the HeLa genome [Henrietta Lacks’ genome, and familial consent].

In response to Larry, I don’t have a definitive opinion about the HeLa genome disclosure in terms of whether it was ethical to release it or not. “Both sides” have positions which I see the validity of. I think ultimately the root issues really date to the 1950s, not today, and they don’t have to do with personal genomics as such. Also, I’d recommend Joe Pickrell’s post, Henrietta Lacks’s genome sequence has been publicly available for years.

Larry also has a question in the comments:

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The inevitability of eugenics…as preventative health

Inbred lineage. The Role of Inbreeding in the Extinction of a European Royal Dynasty, Alvarez et. al.

Every now and then Richard Dawkins stirs controversy by bringing up the topic of eugenics. This is not surprising in terms of Dawkins’ intellectual pedigree. The most influential British evolutionary biologist in the generation before Dawkins, R. A. Fisher, was a eugenicist. Arguably the most the most eminent evolutionist of Dawkins’ own generation, W. D. Hamilton, clearly had eugenical sympathies, though he was keenly aware how unfashionable that had become.* University College London’s Galton Laboratory still had the word eugenics in its title until 1965. More recently Dawkins has brought up the issue of consanguinity amongst the British Pakistani community. A practice which one might argue is non-eugenical due to the high rate of recessive diseases.

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Schizophrenia about genetics

The genetics of schizophrenia is a fertile if fraught topic. But I won’t be discussing that in this post. Rather, I want to put the spotlight on a peculiar contradictory and illogical tendency in the contemporary American Zeitgeist: the gene is all-powerful, and the gene is irrelevant. The same people who raise eyebrows with skepticism about the heritability of endophenotypes, nevertheless seem to believe that when it comes to the domain of disease genes are perfectly and frighteningly predictive! I know scientifically educated people who have expressed to me their confidence in the power of nurture, as opposed to nature, in the determination of the character of their potential offspring. And yet these same individuals may express serious worry that genetic testing might render the whole field of health insurance null and void. The problem with this perspective is that it is a robust behavior genetic finding that many traits have substantial heritable components. That is, the correlation between parent and offspring in a trait (e.g., personality) is not simply a function of environmental input. Similarly, for many diseases which have a biological basis the predictive value of a given set of genes, or even family history, is often imperfect. Biological development has a strong random component, which we can’t predict or control. This is true even for environmental inputs as well; there are people who have never smoked who die of lung cancer.

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On replacements for Google Reader, etc.

With the impending expiration of Google Reader, I have been using Feedly, and I like it quite a bit. So if you’ve been procrastinating, check it out.

The Feedburner address for this blog is:

http://feeds.feedburner.com/GeneExpressionBlog

The blog content is of course pushed to Twitter:

https://twitter.com/razibkhan

Also, if for whatever reason you want Razib-curated-content, my Pinboard is public (RSS). I also push content to a Facebook account. And the best way to contact me is using one of the options on my personal website. And with that I end this irregularly scheduled administrative post.

Henrietta Lacks' genome, and familial consent

Rebecca Skloot has an op-ed in The New York Times, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the Sequel. I’ve read it a few times now and I’ll be honest and say I’m not totally clear on some of the points she’s trying to make, so I didn’t have a strong reaction to it. This is in contrast to Michael Eisen, who has a post up, The Immortal Consenting of Henrietta Lacks. He told me on Twitter that he had some exchanges with Skloot (on Twitter) which informed his response, so he probably has more context than I do. Eisen says:

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