When I was a biology grad student in the early 1980s, we used to joke about people who were getting their PhDs by spending six long years sequencing a single gene. They worked around the clock seven days a week - and seven nights, too, sleeping on their lab benches when they slept at all.
A few years later the Human Genome Project came along and sped things up quite a bit. But it still took 13 years and a billion dollars to fully sequence a single human genome.
It's a different story now. With a one-day, $1,000 genome sequence in sight, a 20-minute, $100 sequence can't be far off. It appears that within 15 years or so, the average individual's genomic sequence will be just another lengthy, standard supplemental addition to that person's electronic medical record.
That raises a lot of questions. Last Saturday, I had the great privilege of asking a few of them to a panel of three tier-one Stanford experts: Mildred Cho, PhD, associate director of the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics; Hank Greely, JD, director of the Center for Law and the Biosciences, and Mike Snyder, MD, PhD, chair of Stanford's genetics department and director of the Center for Genomics and Personalized Medicine. (I was the moderator.)
The panel, titled "Genetic Privacy: The Right (Not) to Know," was a lively one, part of a day-long Alumni Day event sponsored by the Stanford Medical Center Alumni Association. (Here's a link to the video above). Cho, Greely and Snyder have their own well-developed perspectives and policy preferences on the utility of mass genomic-sequence availability, and they articulated those views with passion and aplomb.
The 300 people in the audience, most of them doctors, had plenty of questions of their own. Several were ones I'd hoped to ask but hadn't had time.
By the time I walked away from this consciousness-raising clash of perspectives, newly aware of just how fast the future is coming at us, I had another question: Once everyone has the equivalent of a thumb drive with their complete genome on it, can you imagine a kind of online matchmaking service in which you upload your genome to a server, which then picks out a date or a mate for you? The selection is guided by what you say you're looking for: short-term mutual attraction, an enduring monogamous relationship, robust offspring ... Is that now thinkable?
Admittedly, what we've learned more than anything else from research on the genome is just how much of it we don't have a clue about. So it's pretty silly to think that some disembodied yenta computer could, in any sensible way, predict from a scan of two people's genomes how well they're going to hit it off, and for how along, or what sort of uberchildren might be spawned by a random hookup between a couple of their trillions of gametes.
But still. How many people believe in astrology, regularly read their daily horoscopes and occasionally act on them - maybe even pick up potential partners based on them? And why should a belief in the overwhelming importance of our three-billion-chemical-letter-long genomic sequences hold any less magical appeal than that?
I'm looking for a double-X ATTCAAG with good mitochondrial material. Please contact GenomeMate.com. If things work out, I'll let you take a peek at my junk DNA.
Previously: The end of sex?, Stanford geneticist talks tracking biological data points and personalized medicine and Examining how the Supreme Court ruling on gene patenting affects medical and scientific research