It Runs in Your Genes

I chose to read “The Biopolitics of Human Genetics Research and Its Application” by Fatimah Jackson and Sherie McDonald this week. This article discusses how human genetics research is being used to trace ancestry and how this kind of information can be misinterpreted and misconstrued. The authors particularly focus on mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) used to provide African Americans with information about their ancestry. While it may seem exciting to be able to learn where your family came from, there are a number of issues with using mtDNA to show ancestry. First of all, mtDNA is only representative of your maternal lineage, representing only one individual who may not be representative of your entire ancestry. Additionally, ethnic groups are dynamic and constantly changing. How certain groups exist today is not necessarily representative of how they existed many years ago.

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(Source: “The Biopolitics of Human Genetics Research and Its Application”)

Another topic related to genetics and ancestry that often gets misconstrued is the “Out of Africa” hypothesis of human evolution and migration. This model states that the modern human evolved in Africa and migrated out of Africa to Europe and Asia. While this is the most accepted model, it is often misinterpreted to mean that people from Africa are a more primitive version of humans. However, people on the continent of Africa have also faced a number of selective pressure and outside influences that have contributed to a changing gene pool.

The interest in genetic research in telling us who we are and where we come from has only continued to grow over the past few years. With a variety of companies like 23andMe promising to tell you where your ancestors came from for only $100, it is very easy for people to fall prey to the incomplete information provided purely by your genes. In order for these kinds of tests to work, the companies need a map of single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) that they use to indicate where your genes most likely come from. To do this, a large number of genomes from a diverse group of people are needed, leading to ethical questions about what genomes are needed and how to acquire those genomes. There is also a huge debate about which SNPs should be used, which each company relying on a different set of SNPs and using a slightly different method to calculate results (Reardon, 2011). This means that people can receive different results about their ethnicity and ancestry from different companies.

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This is not the only thing that genetic research is being used for. Another huge market in genetics is calculating predispositions to genetic diseases and determining if you are a carrier for certain things. Unfortunately, many companies use oversimplified ideas about the relationship between gene and phenotype, which can lead to inaccurate results that can easily be misinterpreted by the consumer (Nordgren and Juengst, 2009).

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Jackson, Fatimah, and Sherie McDonald. "The Biopolitics of Human Genetics Research and Its Application." Tactical Biopolitics: Art, Activism, and Technoscience, edited by Beatriz da Costa and Kavita Philip, 193-204. Cambridge, MS: The MIT Press, 2008.

Norgren, A, Juengst, E. T., “Can genomics tell me who I am? Essentialist rhetoric in direct-to-consumer DNA testing” in New Genetics and Society 01/2009; 28(2): 157-172. 

Reardon, Jenny, “The ‘persons’ and ‘genomics’ of personal genomics,” Personalized Medicine, 2011.