03 October 2011
Postgraduate student at the ESRC Innogen Centre, University of EdinburghAppeared in BioNews 627
My Beautiful Genome: Exposing Our Genetic Future One Quirk at a Time
Published by Oneworld Publications
ISBN-10: 1851688331, ISBN-13: 978-1851688333
Buy this book from Amazon UK
Lone Frank can look in the mirror and see her genetic heritage, her pronounced nose and thin frame from her mother's side; the elongated face and narrow lips from her father's. But what of her sarcasm? Or the way she can occasionally hear her father's voice coming from her mouth? As somebody prone to depression, she sets out to see if the answer lies in her DNA and if her personality is as much genetic as environmental.
Her trip takes her to meet Dr James Watson and his work on the genetic causes of neurological disorders. The first-hand experience of bringing up a son with schizophrenia has motivated him to find out more about the genetic causes of such diseases.
His view is the answer lies in random mutations, leading two healthy parents to produce a child with a genetic predisposition for mental illness. This observation flows seamlessly into a basic introduction to genes and the consequences of mutations, and the data that could be gained by sequencing an ever-growing number of full genomes.
The tale moves on to the relationship between genetics and kinship, exploring paternity testing and the trend for using genetic testing to find where our ancestors are from. Frank explores the different tests available and the ancestry they promise to discover - a goldmine for 'genetic genealogists'.
Frank next finds out what our genes can tell us about our health, starting with a trip to deCODE Genetics to discover her own risk profile. Confronted with a list of statistics for a selection of diseases, she explores what it means to know you have a lower or higher than average risk for a condition, and the databases that allow people to search their genetic information for links to behaviour and medical conditions. .
Some genetic associations, like the link between coffee drinking and breast size, seem trivial. Others, like the BRCA genes linked to breast cancer, are not. Franks'family history of breast cancer prompts her to push for a BRCA test, but she is refused because there are not enough incidences in her family. This reminds us why regular screening can be better than genetic testing.
The remainder of the book is devoted to examining the effects our genes have on 'us' - our personality. Whether we are thrill seeking, how aggressive we are and our chance of developing schizophrenia are all explored, along with work on the 'gay gene'.
Frank's experiences of depression lead her to investigate depressive and psychiatric illnesses and speak to those seeking to find out more about their heritability. She subjects herself to yet another test - this time to find out more about her own character through the 'five factor model' that categorises personality traits. More interesting to Frank is her genetic analysis, especially the gene variants thought to render an individual more vulnerable to depression.
Moving away from the brain, the final chapter explores how our genes influence our choice of partner - from favouring the smell of those with different HLA (human leukocyte antigen) genes from us to the gene for infidelity. She also investigates the successful programs set up to test for recessive diseases, such as the one available to Ashkenazi Jews. The chapter touches on bioethics, and whether choosing the best genes is good sense or eugenics, and the effects genetic testing has on our sense of identity.
Even though the genetics may be a little basic for somebody with experience, this book manages to do something textbooks miss - to bring home the connection between our genes and our identities. This is not just a clinical world of data and statistics, but also one person's journey with her reactions to her discoveries. A must-read for anyone considering taking a genetic test.
Buy My Beautiful Genome: Exposing Our Genetic Future One Quirk at a Time from Amazon UK.