Tag Archives: genes

23andMe, myself, and I

Here is the new ad from 23andMe that will begin airing shortly on cable TV*:

Genomics is going mainstream and the best news is first that it’s real simple and second that it’s all about me.

Let’s take the most obvious first: the “me” meme. Of course this relates to the company name, but the ad takes me to a new level. It makes “you” your DNA. I give them points for a couple of qualifiers — it “helps” make me who I am, one character says. But the overall message is that you are your genes.

It also exploits the meme of egocentrism. Nearly everything today seems to be all about me. Memoirs are the hottest genre of nonfiction. We have a magazine called “Self.” One of the most common themes on commercial websites is to have a “My [company name]” area, which usually just means they have your personal information to use to sell you more stuff. There’s even a “.me” internet domain, which they advertise “is all about you.” Who isn’t curious about himself? I’m the most interesting topic in the world! And 23andMe will tell me about my true inner nature for just $99.

One element of personalized medicine, then, is narcissism. Another, more noble, element is individuality. No one is more committed to his individuality than I am—but I’m also wary of its dark side: selfishness. I am struck by the single reference to future generations (“what I will pass on to my kids”). Again, this is a two-sided coin. In the Progressive era, the literature on genetic medicine emphasized family and community. There isn’t a hint of that here. On the one hand, then, the ad is free of the eugenic message of controlling human evolution. On the other, it’s relentlessly selfish. Most likely, the reason for staying away from issues such as family, community, and responsibility is that it enables them to steer way wide of abortion. This ad is about me, not my kids and not the future. That’s actually a new and rather radical development in genetics. 

A persistent theme in popular literature from the 19th century to the 21st, is that hereditary information provides certainty. This despite the fact that one of the signal insights from genomics is how uncertain its results are. Genetic medicine today is all about probabilities, and to make informed decisions based on our genetics we have to understand how probability works. The ad works against this principle, promising certainty where there is only chance. “Now, I know” says one woman. No, you don’t. Now, you have a sense of risk—not certainty. This is a dangerous over-simplification.

double helix

Simplified double helix from Watson and Crick’s 1953 paper.

This sense of simplicity is also carried in the graphics. Note how there’s hardly a double helix in it. “Your” DNA is reduced to circles, dots, and lines. They move and whirl entertainingly and there’s just enough suggestion of complexity to carry the message that you can’t understand “you” without them‚ 23andMe. If DNA becomes as central to identity as companies such as 23andMe want to make it, this ad suggests that its iconic image may fade. Even the stripped-down ribbons and bars version is simply too complex for TV.


An early karyogram (of Down syndrome) from the 1960s.

A comprehensive chromosome map from UCSF.

Screen shot from 23andMe commercial. Her “DNA” is those two colorful cylinders by her ear.

Most of the genetic “knowledge” promised is simple enough to be carried in the one- and two-syllable words that dominate mass-market media. Genetic medicine, stuffed as it is with Latinate and Greek words, is a tough sell in that market, but the ad pulls it off. At 0:21 we hear the longest word in the ad: “hemochromatosis.” The speaker pauses after the second syllable, to suggest empathy with viewers who get hung up on such terms. According to the Mayo Clinic website, hemochromatosis is indeed usually inherited, is rarely serious, is most common in men, and is the most common genetic disease in Caucasians. The ad script gives this word to a black man. Thus, one of the ad’s subtle messages is to erase racial differences—even differences supported by scientific evidence. It’s a commonplace in TV ads nowadays to feature men and women of many hues, but the 23andMe ad takes it a step further.

Another theme of the commercial is the way it suggests communities based around biological identities of health and disease. Once, our primary identities were with those who lived near us, or shared our work or hobbies or politics. But politics has become personal, our communities are digital, and our identities center around health. The sociologist Nikolas Rose calls this “biological citizenship.” The 23andMe website features forums where members who share particular mutations or risks can discuss diets, lifestyle habits, child-bearing decisions–or their pets, if they wish. They are communities based around health. The ad sends the message that race, class, and gender are no longer our defining social themes: what matters now is health and disability.

We hear so much about the importance of educating the public about their biology as a key component of contemporary personalized medicine, but in this ad that biology is reduced to bumper-sticker-like phrases about this circle “saying” I will have blue eyes and that line segment “saying” I have a risk of this or that disease. Learning about me will be fun, easy, and inexpensive. Thank goodness I can mail off a C-note, spit in a cup, and in a few weeks get a report that simplifies it all in language I can understand. The ad ends with a rainbow of people chanting “Me. Me. Me.” It’s the “Om” of the 21st century.


*h/t to Bob Resta for sending the link to the ad, and to Shirley Wu (@shwu) for a tweet that showed me that the hemochromatosis passage was too terse in yesterday’s version. I’d been wanting to add something about biological citizenship and Shirley’s comment suggested a way to do it.




Stop saying “biologically programmed,” goddamit!

Here’s your quick daily dose of biological determinism. This is nice because it combines deterministic thinking about both genes and brains. If this article were a bird it would be a Great Blue Heron–not exactly rare, but impressive nonetheless. I’m going to pick on it, largely because I slept like crap last night and I’m feeling cranky.

US News and World Report asks, “Could a gene help make you obese?” Okay, that right there is either shocking (You mean it’s not just eating too much?) or trivial (No shit. Genes could and indeed do help in making me everything I am).

People who carry two copies of a variant form of the “FTO” gene are more likely to feel hungry soon after eating a meal, because they carry higher levels of the hunger-producing hormone ghrelin in their bloodstream, an international team of scientists found.

Holy crap! There’s a hunger-producing hormone? Bip! Bip! Bip! “Hello, World Health Organization? Yea, look, this is gonna sound crazy, but we can END WORLD HUNGER TOMORROW! Seriously! All we need is four tanker-freighters of anti-ghrelin…”

What’s more, brain scans revealed this double FTO gene variant changes the way in which the brain reacts to food and ghrelin.

Oh god, where’s the Alka-Seltzer? I knew I shouldn’t have had that third plate of deep-fried ghrelin poppers before the game last night. Probably why I slept so crappy…

And now we come to the neuro-determinism part of the post.

People with the double variant displayed different neural responses in the brain region known to regulate appetite and the pleasure/reward center that normally responds to alcohol and recreational drug use.

I don’t have a problem with referencing the nucleus accumbens, the so-called “pleasure center.” That research is decades old. But the phrasing here subtly and repeatedly encourages the crass phrenological misperception that the brain is just a bunch of lumps each dedicated to some 21st century activity, like chugging Jaegermeister, snorting Adderall, and swallowing whole Twinkies. It’s not, people. The genome doesn’t work like that and the brain doesn’t work like that. It seems that way, because we study them by trying to figure out how brains and genes influence stuff we already do. When you look from the bottom up at how they work to produce signals, it turns out to be much more complex and subtle.

“Oh, but Genotopia,” the journalist complains. “I can’t go on about the nucleus accumbens! I know it’s a simplification, but these little short-cuts are necessary in order to write about complex science for wide audiences!”

Okay, whiner, I’ll do it for you. Ta-da:

People with the double variant displayed greater activity in two key brain regions, one involved in creating the sensation of hunger, the other linked to feelings of pleasure.

You see? Easy. A couple of little tweaks and you introduce hints of contingency and inter-connectedness, rather than implying that we’re all made out of Legos. No waffling, and no Latin.

Just so the poor writer doesn’t feel singled out, the scientists do it too. The lead author on the study says,

 “What this study shows us is that individuals with two copies of the obesity-risk FTO variant are biologically programmed to eat more.”

Really? You’re going to go with “biologically programmed”? I thought we got rid of that language just after Jurassic Park. People homozygous for this one variant may well show a statistical correlation with obesity. It may even be legitimate to say they have a predisposition to eat more. But for Mendel’s sake, ban the cyborg-speak, will you?

Okay, I have to get to work, so I’m not going to go through this entire article. But look, this is an increasingly important issue. We are constantly being told how we have to take our healthcare into our own hands. Education is crucial. And the single most important concept in dealing with the really complex systems of the body–the genome, the brain, the immune system–is probability. By 2013, deterministic speech like this is just laziness. Good science writers and careful scientists don’t say this stuff any more. Doing so is a real disservice to a public that is increasingly dependent on translations of science for its understanding of biology and health. Trash those old metaphors, adopt a few new clichés and stock phrases, and we will be a long way toward a healthier understanding of our own bodies.

The Bacon Gene

According to a recent study, pork appreciation could be genetic. Though the finding remains speculative, the correlation of such a high-level subjective character trait with a particular gene is already having a far-reaching impact on domestic policy.

In the study, variants of the OR7D4 gene, which encodes an odorant receptor, were correlated with a preference for pig meat. Subjects who possessed the RT allele rated the appeal of pork more highly than those who possessed a variant called WM. The gene in question responds to the steroid androstenone, which, it turns out, is present in high amounts in the muscle of male pigs. The authors simply connect the dots and suggest that the taste for pork may be mediated by this gene. The paper was published this week in the journal PLOS One.

This study represents a breakthrough in the genetics of breakfast. For years now, researchers have searched in vain for the gene for crispy potatoes, tender inside, with onions, bell peppers, salt, pepper, and a little oregano. An egg-hunt for the Over Easy Gene has flopped, the candidate-gene approach providing exactly zero gene candidates. The scientific community was buzzed, however, by the discovery of two coffee genes in the spring of 2011.

The Pork Board, American Home Fries Association, Egg Board, Florida Citrus Growers, and Coffee-Growers’ Association are joining forces and lobbying direct-to-consumer genetic testing companies such as 23AndMe to create a Breakfast Panel in their personal genomics profiles. Researchers and marketers hope to identify a genotype for the preference for an “American breakfast.” Preliminary studies suggest that a still-hypothetical “Continental” genotype shows linkage between a preference for a nice buttery croissant or currant scone with cigarette smoking, universal healthcare, promiscuous sex, and tight pants with pointy little effeminate shoes. Dick Dorkins, who heads up the personal genome sequencing effort “Project Dick,” has already assembled such a hypothetical panel and run it against his own genome. He claims that his sequence shows that he is as American as the gene for apple pie.

These findings raise the possibility of prenatal genetic diagnosis and selective abortion. The prospect of implanting only embryos genetically tailored to like Mom’s cooking may be too tempting for farsighted prospective parents to pass up. In the not-too-distant future, only “foodies” may have gastronomically adventurous children, while those for whom salt is a spice may be able to tailor their progeny to share their lack of taste. Vegetarians could become a separate caste and sent to a reservation in Northern California, where their only sustenance would be mung beans and marijuana.

This naturally has political implications. Indeed, the conservative pro-science group Freedom Control Institute issued a white paper yesterday recommending genetic screening for health, genealogy, and breakfast preference for all presidential candidates in future elections. Under their plan, a Breakfast Panel profile would be used to screen anyone seeking to occupy the highest breakfast nook in the land. Any candidate showing a Continental Breakfast Profile, with variants such as OR7D4-WM, would be ineligible to be included on primary ballots in Kansas.

The idea is not without controversy. Questions remain about where one would draw the lines around a properly free-market American breakfast. Watchdog groups decry the amount of pork in American politics, yet it seems unrealistic to do more than trim some of the fat. Presumably the sausage-links gene variant of OR7D4 would qualify one for office. But what about Canadian bacon?, asks Dorkins. Is that even bacon at all?

Then there is the whole matter of toast. Right-wing genetic hardliners insist that true Americans eat only white bread, while moderates point out that six out of the last six Presidents have eaten wheat toast. Possession of a pumpernickel variant, all sides agree, would indicate a dangerously Euro-socialist culinary constitution and should debar someone from higher office.

The dairy lobby, which so far has been left out of these discussions owing to low blood-sugar, has begun to push for social policy on the genetics of preference for milk products. Cheese, for example, has long been a political hot potato. Hardliners favor limiting candidates to cheddar and colby. Rallying around the slogan “Soft on cheese—soft on defense,” they argue that a strict “No Brie” genetic policy is a bulwark against socialized medicine. Opponents, however, accuse them of lactose intolerance, pointing out that the high correlation between the genetics of preference for hard and soft cheeses would make such a policy impractical.

Such self-styled “lactose liberals” suffered a blow last week, when a Colorado woman spilled her yogurt on President Obama. With one flick of her spoon, she disabused the President of what had been a pro-active culture stance. Within hours, the Oval Office issued the “Yoplait Doctrine,” which severed diplomatic relations with any nation producing dairy products containing live bacteria intended for sale in the United States. More than 40 countries, including India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Germany, and even neutral Switzerland, immediately closed their American embassies.

A global food fight may be beginning that could trigger the Broccoli Clause of the 1992 Paris Convention on food policy. If invoked, all participants would be required to eat their vegetables or else be sent to their rooms without any dessert.