It is quite alarming to realize that all humans originated in Africa around 60,000 years ago. In a world where humans are often segregated according to continent and country, it is difficult to conceptualize such commonality of origin.
The reason we are scattered across various regions can be traced back to when our ancestors left the African continent long ago and dispersed throughout the globe: Some occupied the Fertile Crescent, some discovered the dramatic vistas of the Andes Mountains, while others preferred the thrill of a nomadic lifestyle. Understanding how humans came to populate Earth fascinates me and prompted me to discover National Geographic’s Genographic Project.
The initiative collects DNA samples from simple cheek cell swabs in order to inform individuals of their ancestral migration path from Africa. A laboratory identifies genetic markers on mitochondrial DNA, which is passed from mother to child, in order to reveal maternal ancestry. The lab also examines markers on the Y chromosome, which is passed from father to son, in order to reveal paternal ancestry. This information helps reconstruct our ancestors’ trekking routes out of Africa.
Time and time again, the power of DNA surprises me. That we can obtain so much information from a string of nucleotides is astounding. Yet, it is crucial that we understand the potential dangers of distributing our bodily blueprints to society in this modern age.
23andMe, a genomics and biotechnology company based in California, offers a gene-testing kit that allows customers to send in a sample of their DNA in order to receive a personalized description of certain diseases for which they are at risk. Although these tools are certainly an interesting way of exploring DNA, there are greater dangers at hand. 23andMe is a commercial enterprise.
Currently, the company has analyzed over 500,000 individuals’ DNA; this means it has the genome sequences of half a million people and can do what it pleases with the information.
Once you hand your DNA sequence to the company, you lose your right to privacy. 23andMe reserves the right to share customers’ genomes with third parties. Recently, the company has expressed an interest in using the sequences for medical research purposes.
However, the company could potentially sell the sequences to the pharmaceutical or insurance industries; these sectors would want to use our DNA to develop more lucrative policies and products.
Once our DNA falls into the hands of the commercial industry, all vestiges of privacy are shattered. The sequences will be stored indefinitely on online databases — at risk of falling into the hands of hackers. As more individuals begin to share their genomes, everyone is at risk because it only takes a few relatives’ DNA to intuit another relative’s sequence. The most dangerous aspect of companies having access to our DNA is that we no longer have control over our deepest, most personal information; our sequences could be used against our interests.
23andMe is not the only company constructing an aggregate DNA database; Roots for Real, Sorenson Genomics, Genebase and hoards of others have launched similar operations. The frightening thing about these enterprises is that selling DNA kits is not their primary goal or main source of revenue; once the kits are used to assemble a considerable DNA collection, the genomes will be sold to various other industries to rake in enormous amounts of cash.
Although these companies provide DNA analyses, this service is but a clever ruse for nefarious purposes.
We are currently at the crossroads of DNA technology, and we need to think critically about whether we truly want to hand over our personal information to commercial entities that could use our sequences against us. Although determining our ancestral journeys from Africa and discovering interesting genetic quirks from our DNA sequences are quite enthralling endeavors, the potential consequences of DNA databases being abused by governments and corporations are chilling.
I recommend that we keep our precious blueprints to ourselves; they wield too much power to be shared.
Nikita Deshpande is a freshman in the College. The Century Cap appears every other Friday.