Tuesday, 5 November 2013

The gene genie (Part 2)

Where were we? Oh yes, I remember. I was about to get my genetic results.

Of course the first thing you notice when you log on is -- well -- very little. There are no glaring warnings, no headlines, nothing on the screen to suggest that they know you're there. Not that I was expecting a reception committee -- "Ah Mr Bond, we've been expecting you".

My first piece of genetic information, to whet the appetite so to speak, is a polite suggestion that I should avoid eating raw oysters -- I am particularly susceptible to the most common form of Norovirus -- you know, the diarrhoea and vomiting bug. Nice.

But it's not long before you get into the swing of things. There is a lot of genetic information here, mostly of little importance. A sort of genetic amuse bouche before the opening salvoes -- a list of 52 conditions of known genetic inheritance. And for me, of no genetic interests either since my genome is unpolluted by these little malefactors. Of 52 conditions with known inheritance, I have none. No phenylketonuria. No Gaucher's disease, no Pendred syndrome nor familial Mediterranean fever. And those are just the ones I can pronounce. I'm also in the clear on Medium-Chain Acyl-CoA Dehydrogenase (MCAD) Deficiency and certainly out of the woods on Rhizomelic Chondrodysplasia Punctata Type 1 (RCDP1) . Just imagine my relief.

In fact I don't have around 45 conditions that, until now, I didn't know it was possible to have. And how can you be afraid of something that you didn't even know existed. Unless you're Donald Rumsfeld.

But surely I hear you ask them must be more for your $99 than an all clear on the unpronounceable diseases and gentle advice to avoid oysters which, bearing in mind that they have the taste and consistency of snot, will not take much further inducement.

Not surprisingly then there is a whole lot more information available from my loquacious little genome. In the debit column, I have a slightly elevated risk of psoriasis. Okay, mildly irritating perhaps but, when I discover that it's counterbalanced by a dramatic reduction in my likelihood of contracting Alzheimer's, it's a trade I'm more than prepared to make. And I couldn't help but raise a wry smile on discovering that my genetic predisposition to Parkinson's is actually some 20% lower than the general population based on my expression of different alleles in that smorgasbord of genes associated with Parkinson's.

All of this genetic shenanigans proves that I have a common or garden genome. In fact you would struggle to find a less interesting genome than mine. Even geneticists, trying to find excitement where there is none, must have absentmindedly picked their fingernails when challenged to say something interesting about my genetic composition. Ordinary. Very ordinary. Jon 'Ordinary' Stamford.

It's rather like reading my school report -- 'Try as he may, Stamford has a very ordinary genome. It is unlikely his genome will amount to anything. He has performed adequately in all subjects, but without distinction in any. As goalie, he kept a clean sheet in the Nature v Nurture house cup. His performance as third bystander in the school play went largely unnoticed. The careers master suggests he tries his hand at something mundane and unimaginative. Accountancy perhaps. Or politics.

Just as I'm about to write my genome off, I stumble across the 'Traits' section of the website. Here, stashed away like some cabinet of Victorian curiosities, are all the things that won't harm you or help you. Or do anything really. They're just part of you.

And here I discover that I am unlikely to get male pattern baldness. True enough -- I have a full head of hair. Grey hair certainly but at my age you just happy to be able to hold your head high when buying a comb in Boots. No need for any awkward moments there. Moreover, my hair is apparently slightly curlier than average. Right again. Only slightly mind you -- we're not talking Afro here. And my eyes are likely to be blue. In actual fact they are a sort of pale blue -- more a steel grey I think. They match my hair.

And when it comes to muscle performance the report tells me I'll be an unlikely sprinter due to a lack of fast twitch muscle fibres. Going back to school again, it should be said that my track and field performances were legendary. I achieved a 100m time that was considered slow for the 200m and remain to this day the only person at the school ever to injure himself on his own javelin. They wouldn't even let me pick up the discus.

It also transpires that I have two different alleles that make you brighter if you are breastfed (which I was). According to the genome's prediction, and I'm happy to go along with it, I should be around 12 IQ points higher than average. Actually (trying hard not to look smug) I think that figure is nearer 30 or so. And I'm a dunce compared to the kids.

But all of this genetic information pales into insignificance when stacked against what, for me, is unequivocally the most memorable finding. I possess the CC form of the ABCC11 gene which means that I am condemned to a life of wet ear wax. Even 23andme's scholarship comes up short on this one and they have to confess, rather limply, that they know of no evolutionary advantage to having wet rather than dry earwax.

Don't laugh -- scientists get paid to do this stuff.

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