Tag Archives: Human Genome Project

DNA Testing, Family Secrets, And Revealing Truths About Infidelity

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What if you woke up one day and found out your father wasn’t actually your biological father?

What if you woke up one day and found out your kids weren’t actually your biological kids?

For a growing number of people, this isn’t just a distressing hypothetical. It’s a painfully real scenario. Secrets that were once easy to keep are now coming to light, thanks to a mix of curiosity, advancing technology, and simple economics. It’s causing a lot of distress for a lot of people, but the fact that it’s happening is somewhat telling.

To understand it, it’s necessary to understand just how unprecedented this situation is. Until very recently, getting a DNA test was exceedingly expensive. Go back 25 years when the Human Genome Project was just getting underway and just sequencing one person’s DNA cost millions. Then, thanks to advances in sequencing techniques and computing technology, the cost fell rapidly.

Today, sequencing your DNA costs less than $1,000. If you just want to test your ancestry, that’s even cheaper with kits costing around $100. You don’t need a court order or contacts at the FBI. You just need a spare $100 and a willingness to spit in a tube. It may not seem like much, but make no mistake. This is uncharted territory for our species and our society.

Ever since we structured our civilization around agriculture, passing down property through generations, and building more diverse societies, there has been a strong incentive to know that your children are biologically yours. This is where taboos surrounding virginity and female chastity come from. For centuries, the best way to assure your kids were yours was for your bride to be a virgin on her wedding night.

However, even in those limited circumstances, it was entirely possible to get around them. The traditional practices of testing young women for virginity are both invasive and prone to major error. If a woman is cunning enough, she can beat those tests and get away with lying about her sexual history. Men could be just as effective about hiding affairs that may have resulted in children with other women.

Now, hiding the truth isn’t just harder in the era of the internet and social media. Certain lies can no longer remain hidden. You can claim videos are deep fakes and that pictures had been Photoshopped. You can’t make those kinds of excuses when the truth is literally written in someone’s DNA.

Sometimes, the truth is just shocking. Take the story of Dani Shapiro, who found out that the man she’d loved and cherished as her father was not related to her. It wasn’t because of her mother’s infidelity, though. It was because her parents utilized an old infertility treatment that resulted in her being conceived with doner sperm instead of that of her surrogate father.

In other cases, the truth can be devastating, such as the case of Sarah Zhang, who found out that rumors of her mother having an affair with a restaurant owner were all too true. This revelation was heartbreaking. In an instant, her entire identity and sense of self had been uprooted. This is how she described the difficulty processing this information.

When I first found out the news, I considered taking a leave of absence from work, because I had difficulty focusing on anything else besides the revelation from 23andMe. On a hard day, I feel heartbroken about my mom’s secret. Her illness created an intimacy between us in the final months of her life and I felt that we were able to tell each other all the things in our heart. This news taints that memory and created a fresh bout of grieving about her death.

These stories are harrowing and they’re becoming increasingly common. There’s even a support group on Facebook for people who learn from these testing kits that their heritage isn’t what they’d previously thought. It’s hard to understand what these people are going through, living their whole lives thinking they know who their parents are, only to find out it wasn’t true.

As DNA testing kits continue to get cheaper and more prevalent, there’s a good chance there are plenty more cases like this just waiting to be uncovered. The fact that it seems to be happening so much says more about our species and our society than it does about the technology behind it.

Think, for a moment, about all the families who lived in the era before this technology became available. How many of those families had secrets like the ones Dani Shapiro and Sarah Zhang later uncovered? How many fathers unknowingly raised children that weren’t biologically theirs? How many mothers birthed children who were sired by someone other than their spouse?

It’s impossible to know for sure and the fact that it was impossible for most of human history might be just as telling as any family secret. I’ve mentioned before at how our notions of traditional romance and family have significant flaws. We value and idealize monogamy and fidelity, but the fact that we go to such extremes to favor it seems to imply that there’s something untenable about it.

Promiscuity and infidelity have existed in every human society. There’s a reason why even ancient civilizations had laws and traditions regulating marriage, adultery, and divorce. Even when there are serious consequences, people still did it. The fact that some of the punishments were so severe imply that a lot of people were getting away with it.

Even so, this didn’t stop men from raising children as their own. It didn’t stop women from loving their children and their spouses all the same. The fact that it was so hard to determine someone’s heritage might have even helped our species from an evolutionary standpoint.

A big part of what makes humans such a successful species is our ability to form tribes, cooperate, and coordinate towards a common goal. In old hunter/gatherer societies, close-knit tribes weren’t quite as concerned about the paternity of their kids. They took a more communal approach to family. Logistically, they had to. They needed that level of cooperation to survive in a harsh, unforgiving world.

Given that humanity spent most of its history in this hunter/gatherer structure, the forces of evolution are already working against those seeking parental certainty. The rise of civilization complicated things, but not to an extent that people couldn’t get away with fooling around. The fact that the average number of sexual partners for people these days is more than one only reveals that the inclinations is definitely there.

That’s an important factor to remember because as DNA testing becomes easier and cheaper, it won’t be possible to avoid the implications. People cheat. People keep secrets. People lie to their kids, sometimes without knowing it. For the most part, it hasn’t affected our ability to function as families and a society. Whether the emerging truth written within our DNA changes that remains to be seen.

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The (Other) Implications Of The Technology In “Jurassic World”

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Movies and TV have a long and colorful history of predicting future technology. The predictions made by “The Simpsons,” alone, are as uncanny as they are creepy. Even when they get the basic laws of physics horribly wrong, they can provide insight into the trends that may very well define our future.

On the spectrum of movies that envision future technology, the “Jurassic Park” franchise occupies a strange part of that spectrum. The original movie, as beloved and successful as it is, did a poor job of predicting the potential of genetic engineering. The entire plot of the movie hinged on the ability of scientists to find sufficiently intact DNA from a 65-million-year-old mosquito and use that to recreate dinosaurs.

Anyone with a passing knowledge of math and the half-life of DNA knows that’s just not possible in the real world. No matter how well-preserved a fossil is, the bonds holding DNA together dissolve completely after about 7 million years so the scientists in “Jurassic Park” wouldn’t even have fragments to work with.

That’s not to say it’s impossible to bring back an extinct species. If you have intact DNA, and we do have it for extinct animals like Mammoths, then there’s no reason why science can’t recreate a creature that no longer exists. The only challenge is gestating the animal without a surrogate, but that’s just an engineering challenge that will likely be solved once artificial wombs are perfected.

Even with that advancement, it would be too late for dinosaurs. Technically, if you had enough working knowledge of how DNA works and how to create an animal from scratch, you could create something that looked like a dinosaur. In fact, it’s already a popular fan theory that none of the animals in “Jurassic Park” were actually dinosaurs. It’s one of the few fan theories that might have been confirmed on screen.

Those theories aside, it’s the the technology on display in “Jurassic World” that has far greater implications. By that, I don’t mean it’ll bring back dinosaurs or other extinct species. It may actually do something much more profound.

Unlike the original movies, both “Jurassic World” and the sequel, “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom,” don’t stop at just bringing back dinosaurs. These movies take place in a world where that spectacle isn’t that exciting anymore. As a result, they start splicing the DNA of other dinosaurs together to create new species, namely the Indominous Rex and the Indoraptor.

While this creates for great action scenes and plenty of dinosaur-driven combat, the true implications of this technology are lost in the spectacle. Take a moment to consider what the science within these movies accomplished. Then, consider what that means for the real world and the future of the human race.

These dinosaurs were not the product of evolution. Evolution works within some pretty rigid limits. It’s a slow, clunky, arduous process that takes a lot of time and a lot of extinction. On top of that, the basic laws of heredity and the inherent limits of hybridization ensure that the transmission of certain traits are next to impossible through natural means.

However, as Dr. Wu himself stated in “Jurassic World,” there’s nothing natural about what what they did. Essentially, the scientists in that movie used the genetic and evolutionary equivalent of a cheat code. There were no barriers to combining the DNA of a T-Rex with that of a Raptor. They just cut and pasted DNA in the same way you would cut and paste text on a word document.

That should sound somewhat familiar to those who have followed this website because that’s exactly what CRISPR does to some extent. It’s basically the cut function for DNA and it exists in the real world. The paste function exists too, although it’s not quite as refined. To that extent, “Jurassic World” is fairly accurate in terms of the technology they used to create the Indominous Rex and Indoraptor.

That’s not to say it’s possible to create the exact same creatures depicted in the movies. There are various anatomical limits to how big, fast, or smart a creature can be, even if there are no genetic barriers to contend with. I don’t know if the creatures created in “Jurassic World” could function in the real world, but the science for making them does exist, albeit in a limited capacity.

That, in and of itself, is a remarkable notion and one that makes the original “Jurassic Park” seem slightly more incredible. If anything, the original movie underestimated the progress that science would make in genetic engineering. That movie just had science rebuilding life from the remnants of existing creatures. We’ve already progressed to the point where we’re starting to make synthetic life from scratch.

This kind of technology has implications that go far beyond bringing extinct animals back from the dead or creating new ones that make for great fight scenes in a movie. It actually has the potential to circumvent evolution entirely in the struggle for survival. “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” even explores this concept, but only to a point.

Without getting too deep into spoiler territory, this movie builds on the same genetics technology that “Jurassic World” introduced with the Indominous Rex. However, it isn’t just applied to dinosaurs. The sequel dares to contemplate how this technology could be used on humans or to supplement human abilities.

It’s not that radical a concept. Humans have, after all, used technology and breeding techniques to domesticate animals that have aided our efforts to become the dominant species on this planet. That process is still hindered by the hard limits of biology. The process in “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” is not bound by those limits.

In this movie, dinosaurs go beyond a spectacle at a theme park. They suddenly become a potential asset to further augment human abilities. Some, such as Jeff Goldblum’s character, Ian Malcolm, would argue that such creatures pose a risk to humanity’s survival. I doubt I’m as smart as Dr. Malcolm, but I’d also argue that he’s underselling just how dominant human beings are at the moment.

Maybe if dinosaurs had come back 1,000 years ago when humans were still using swords, spears, and arrows to fight animals, we might have had a problem. Today, humans have access to machine guns, tanks, and combat drones. Even the apex predators of the Jurassic don’t stand a chance.

I would further argue that the same technology that the scientists in “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” used to make the Indoraptor is even more valuable in terms of how it can affect humans. After all, if you can copy and paste desirable traits into a dinosaur, then you can do the same to a human.

Doing that might cause plenty of ethical issues that Dr. Malcolm has articulated before, but there’s one factor that overshadows all those arguments and that’s the survival of our species. Let’s face it, the human has its limits. We can’t breathe underwater. Our skin is soft and vulnerable. Our immune system has room for improvement.

There are other mammals out there who can survive extreme cold. There are animals whose immune systems are much more effective than ours. There are even some animals that don’t even age. Nature has already solved many of the problems that hinder the human species today. It’s just a matter of taking those solutions and integrating them into our own biology.

If the technology in “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” can create a creature as advanced as the Indoraptor, then there’s no reason why it can’t also create a human who has the muscle strength of a mountain gorilla, the immune system of an alligator, and the longevity of a tortoise. That kind of application is far more impactful than creating fancy zoo attractions.

I imagine that Dr. Malcolm might still warn about the use of this technology, but it may actually be an even greater risk to not use it. Again, it comes back to survival. Eventually, the Earth is going to die, either by the destruction of our sun or some other external force. If we’re to survive beyond that, we need to be able to survive outside one planet.

As it stands, the human species just isn’t built for that. It shows in how poorly our bodies react to space travel. It also shows in how much we struggle to survive in certain environments. To some extent, we must use the technology in “Jurassic World” to improve our survival.

Whether that involves tweaking our genetics with traits from more robust animals or creating pet raptors that help protect us, this technology has uses that are both profound and necessary. There’s still plenty of danger, although it’s doubtful any of that danger entails someone getting eaten by a T-Rex. However, it’s a danger we’ll have to confront whether the Ian Malcolms of the world like it or not.

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Why You SHOULD Donate Your Genome To The Public

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Have you ever wanted to contribute to the future of humanity, but lack the engineering skills or the understanding of quantum mechanics? Well, there are many ways to do so that don’t involve getting a PHD, working for Elon Musk, or volunteering as a guinea pig for medical experiments.

As I speak, medical science is boldly pushing forward in exploring the basic building blocks of human biology. I’m not just referring to the sexy parts either. Since the completion of the Human Genome Project in in the early 2000s, we’ve entered unknown territory in terms of understanding what makes us healthy, what makes us sick, and how we go about treating it.

Beyond simply uncovering new treatments for genetic disease, of which there are many, learning about the fundamentals of human biology is critical to understanding who we are and where we’re going in the future. If the goal of every species is to adapt and survive, then learning about the human genome is akin to giving a light saber to a caveman.

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However, completing the Human Genome Project was just the first step. The primary goal of that project was to simply determine how many genes were in the human genome and how they’re organized within the 3 billion base pairs that make up our chromosomes. It’s not as much a tool as it is an instruction manual with a list of raw materials.

It was an arduous process. Between the time the Human Genome Project started in the early 90s to the time when it was completed over a decade later, the overall cost of sequencing one genome was a hefty $2.7 billion in 1991 dollars. That’s a lot for just one strand of DNA for one species. It’s hard to learn much from anything when it’s that expensive.

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Thankfully, much like early cell phones, science has refined the process and made it cheaper. In fact, it’s gotten a lot cheaper over the past decade. At the moment, it costs just a couple thousand dollars to get your genome sequenced. It’s only going to get cheaper. Some companies, in fact, hope to offer the service for less than $100. That means getting your genome sequenced may one day be cheaper than a set of premium headphones.

This is where your contribution comes in. Last last year, a man made his genome publicly available to the Personal Genome Project in the United Kingdom. That means pretty much anyone with an internet connection can access the specifics of this man’s genetics, right down to the base pair.

While that may seem like an overt surrender of privacy that the Ron Swansons of the world would despise, it’s actually a critical element in the process. It’s not enough to just understand the structure of the human genome. We also need to understand the many variations and diversity within it.

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To better understand why that’s so important, it’s important to remember just how clunky and inexact nature can be. Nature is, by necessity, a blunt instrument that is prone to many flaws. The range of genetic diversity within the human species is what helps us adapt, but it’s also prone to all sorts of flaws.

For most of human history, if not the history of life on Earth, we haven’t been able to do much about these flaws. Nature’s way of dealing with them is through the harsh, tedious, and slow process of natural selection. By learning more about the variations in the human genome, we can skip that process entirely. We can effectively maximize our genetic potential without multiple generations of trial, error, and suffering.

The tools for making use of that knowledge are already in development. I’ve mentioned CRISPR before as a possible method for treating most infectious diseases. That’s just one component in the larger field of genetic engineering, which promises to do more than just treat diseases. It could, in principle, maximize the potential of our genetics in every individual.

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By that, I don’t mean turning every human into a the kind of Übermensch that drives racists, mad scientists, and comic book villains. Like it or not, genetics can be a significant barrier for certain people in terms of realizing their physical, mental, and even sexual goals. If there’s a way to circumvent those barriers, why shouldn’t we seek it?

That’s not to say there aren’t risks. I remember Ian Malcom’s famous speech in “Jurassic Park” as much as anyone who was alive in the early 1990s. We’re not talking about creating monstrous creatures for our own amusement, though. We’re talking about the health, well-being, and suffering of countless individuals, including those alive today and those yet to be born.

In any effort to alleviate suffering and maximize human achievement, knowledge is power and information is the fuel. As it stands, we need more of the latter to improve the former. That’s why contributing your genome is one of the most meaningful things anyone not named Elon Musk can do to further this endeavor.

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That means if you have the ability to participate in the Personal Genome Project, you should seriously consider doing so. There’s still a lot we don’t know about the fundamentals of our own biology. The sheer breadth of human diversity at the genetic level is still not clear, but it’s already astounding in its own right.

By adding your genome to the mix, maybe you’ll reveal a certain trait or mechanism that will help us better understand disease. Maybe your DNA will help refine our understanding of how genetics influence our behavior, appearance, and ability to get along. Maybe doing so will reveal some unexpected heritage that you didn’t know you had.

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If you need a sexier reason for contributing your genome, then consider the possible insights our genes may offer to our sex lives. Perhaps there are genetic factors that effect our ability to form romantic bonds. Perhaps there are factors that effect the intensity, enjoyment, and satisfaction of sex. Even if you’re wary of genetic engineering, isn’t that worth exploring and refining?

There’s a lot to learn and a lot to gain. Some of us might not live long enough to experience those gains, but children alive today may still benefit. A future with less disease, less suffering, and even better sex lives is certainly a future worth working towards.

The opportunity to donate your genome is limited at the moment, but the growing demand for biotechnology and medicine is only accelerating. Even if you’re unable to contribute to the actual science, contributing your genome can be every bit as valuable. Our genome, like our lives, are precious and finite resources. Let’s make the most of them in the name of a better and sexier future.

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