Monday, June 27, 2011

Would You Want to Know?

A close friend of mine recently revealed that he'd invested a couple of hundred bucks to get genetically tested by www.23AndMe.com. Basically, you provide this company with a sample of your saliva and they run a slew of tests to identify different genetic patterns or anomalies.

This friend learned a great deal about both his genetic strengths and weaknesses. He discovered that he had a defect in the production of an important enzyme related to lung and liver function, that predisposes him to emphysema, cirrhosis, lung cancer and a variety of other nasty problems. He was told that he had a heightened probability for heart disease and diabetes. On the other hand, he has a lower than average chance of developing Alzheimer's disease, Crohn's disease and psoriasis. Apparently he has a mutation that leads to slower metabolism of certain anesthetics, which could be relevant if he has surgery. And so on.

He was quite excited about this process, and I have to agree with him that it's pretty cool. The fact that anyone can get so much information about his or her genetic endowment for such a reasonable price is quite remarkable, considering that the structure of DNA was initially unraveled only forty or so years ago, and the human genome decoded about ten years ago. And I imagine this company is making a good deal of money, too.

When I thought about it, though, I decided that I probably wouldn't ever want to send in my own saliva. Honestly, do I really want to know every physical and mental deficiency encoded in my genes? I don't want to obsess about the possible threats to my health and well-being. I have other things to think about.

I try to take care of myself. I eat a balanced diet with lots of fruits and vegetables. I don't smoke. I exercise regularly. I take vitamins. That's enough, I think - for me at least. It's true that a genetic analysis might reveal some condition that would lead to my early demise, which I could avoid by changing certain behaviors. Do I care? Surprisingly, perhaps, not much. I think I'll resist the temptation to pick this apple of knowledge.

I know that I'm going to die sooner or later - we all are. I think I'd rather not spend my life thinking about when or how. I have too many other things to do - too many places to visit, people to meet, books to write.

The promise of new knowledge is seductive, as is the chance to take advantage of new technology. But I think I'll pass.

What about you? Would you want to know the story told by your genes? I'm really curious. Am I just strange, or do any of you see things my way?

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