Consumer DNA Tests - 5 Pros & Cons

There are many opportunities and threats presented by consumer DNA testing. Understanding the issue helps us navigate through them.  

January 9, 2014 (LocalOrg) - VentureBeat's article, "Genetics prof: Why I won’t waste my money on a DNA test in 2014," gives a good introduction on both consumer genetic tests and some of their shortcomings. In the article it states:
The direct-to-consumer tests set back writer Kira Peikoff anywhere from $99 to $399. In two months, she received a full set of health results about her likelihood of contracting a variety of adult-onset conditions. But each of the providers she evaluated (23andMe, Genetic Testing Laboratories, and Pathway Genomics) interpreting the results differently. In one instance, she was warned about an elevated risk for rheumatoid arthritis; in another, a provider deemed her risk to be minimal. 
One sends in a sample of their DNA to one of several companies and receives the results including interpretations of their potential risks for diseases. Professor Hank Greely of Stanford noted that these interpretations vary based on different medical studies used by different companies, leading to inconsistencies of results. Others have condemned the tests as being not only inaccurate but also for provoking unwarranted fear for potential diseases one might never get.

Image: Results from an ancestry test based on DNA conducted by 23andMe. Tests like this are becoming more and more commonly available and as they do people must become educated on the technology that has made them possible and the potential opportunties and threats this technology poses. Only a fully informed population can make appropriate decisions - decisions that can shape society inviting in horrific tyranny or liberating progress. 

More recently the US FDA has banned DNA tests for health analysis. For now, companies like 23andMe are offering ancestry DNA tests while they work on dealing with FDA regulations.

While the FDA is surely not truly interested in our safety, health, or well-being, and regulations for genetic testing seem overbearing compared to other healthcare products available which literally constitute poison, there are several things people should consider about the inevitability of reliable and "approved" consumer DNA testing and its implications.

1. CON - Your DNA Information is Powerful - Protect it: DNA is the code that constitutes your physical being. Every cell in your body contains DNA. DNA is the instructions each cell uses to know where it is, what it should be doing, and how to cope with everything form daily maintenance to fending off disease. Nothing is more personal than your DNA - it is literally what you are. We might want to be careful who we entrust this information to and cautious about inviting in a paradigm where DNA information is regularly collected and used by others, much like fingerprints are today.

In the future, everything from bio-genetic weapons tuned specifically to target an individual's DNA, to planted DNA evidence, to blacklists and healthcare rationing based on your genetic analysis could be possible if we surrender our DNA to the state and the corporations that constitute it.  Governments and organizations engaged in eugenics dream of obtaining the summation of humanity's genetic makeup leading to a wide array of nightmarish scenarios.

Image: DNA printers already exist and are used to create
synthetic DNA strands to be integrated with existing DNA.
These machines will eventually become as common as ink
2. PRO - Your DNA Information is Powerful - Use it: Conversely, as the  technology to sequence, manipulate, and synthesize DNA becomes cheaper and more accessible, we will see a revolution in biotechnology much as we saw in information technology at the advent of the personal computer. Already there are DIYbio labs springing up around the world taking advantage of second-hand equipment and newer gear that is cheap enough for collectives to purchase to undertake biotechnology. (see an introduction to synthetic biology here)

"DNA printers" that can synthesis DNA which can be then introduced into bacteria, animals, or even humans has led to amazing breakthroughs in medicine - everything from regenerating body parts from adult stem cells to curing certain kinds of cancer to correcting permanently (without pharmaceuticals) otherwise debilitating life-long genetic defects. Imagine then the power of DIYbio labs who are able to finally achieve similar results locally and the paradigm shifting effect it will have on the current healthcare system.

3. CON - A "Genetic NSA:" Rather than surrendering our DNA to the state and corporations, or hiding in fear and ignorance of the potential of this technology good or bad, we must begin to understand it better and look for ways to democratize it just as we have the Internet and the information on it. Of course, even when this happens, there is the potential of a "genetic NSA" vacuuming up illegally people's DNA without their consent just as the current NSA does with our information.

DNA can be digitized and sent over the Internet just like any other kind of information. Information sent online can be intercepted. We will want to keep both that, and what the NSA has done to the current Internet, in mind as we move forward toward democratizing biotechnology.

4. PRO - Democratizing GMO: It is not that genetic engineering is in itself bad. It is that the current corporations that monopolize it do so for profits, power, and control. Biotechnology, like anything else, is only as good or as bad as the hands it finds itself in. It cannot be "un-invented" nor will it ever by outlawed. While people should continue working hard to fight biotech monopolies like Cargill, Monsanto, and Syngenta, we must also look for ways to break these monopolies by learning how to use this technology truly for our own benefit.

For example, the same biotechnology that makes GMO food possible, can also be used to test for it. If the FDA refuses to have GMO products labeled, we can just test for it and label it ourselves.

It can also be used to "treat" contaminated genetic lines. It is possible to sequence and store the genetic code for any organism - and as the technology advances this will become easier and more accessible to regular people. If people began taking up DIY biotechnology, this process could be accelerated. Having these "backup" templates will allow us to restore organisms back to their original state after genetic corruption. It may be possible to even "restore" ourselves.

There is also another possibility that democratized GMO crops could open up - the restoration of legacy crops and species that have long since been transformed through thousands of years of selective breeding. Underground Wellness put together a video regarding how the grains we eat today have changed over time and why the grains we eat today are less healthy.

Imagine being able to restore these legacy grains and the benefits that would bring. There are other genetic modifications that could be made for our personal benefit rather than for the benefit of Fortune 500 corporations and their various insidious agendas - benefits that we will only gain if we break the current biotech monopolies and take ownership of this technology for ourselves.

5. PRO & CON -  Consumer DNA Tests Today: People are going to continue taking consumer DNA tests like 23andMe no matter what the risks or future potential abuses such tests might lead to. If you have reservations about sending your DNA to a company to be tested, that is perfectly reasonable and understandable. It will be people that take these tests and create a wider market for DNA testing and sequencing that will drive down the cost and improve the quality of the technology used to carry it out.

This will then directly benefit those of us who have elected to hold onto our DNA and work on developing DIYbio labs and the democratization of this technology. Whether it is DNA testing, biotech, or any other form of technology, we have to accept that the system we have now will not change overnight. We must instead seek an intelligent and smooth transition from what we have now, to where we want to be tomorrow.

While many of us may shutter at the potential abuses of consumer DNA testing and the data bases already being gathered by states and corporations, the people partaking in the tests today are making the technology we will need tomorrow to democratize biotech possible. It is up to us to get educated and to get active - because if we don't these monopolies will simply continue to grow, and the disparity between those who have mastered the essence of life - our DNA - and those that are helplessly ignorant, will only widen.