I was reading this book on a train. My friend and fellow passenger asked me what I was reading, and then, whether it was for work or for pleasure. I was momentarily flummoxed. There’s meant to be a difference?
Given that genotype is (more-or-less) fixed at birth and does not change as we grow, it is striking that Angrist opens his book Here is a Human Being by commenting on his age. He considers how someone of his generation relates to the “exhibitionism on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and MySpace” (although he has since succumbed to the penultimate of these). Then again, whilst its subtitle tells us that this book comes from “the dawn of personal genomics”, in fact it is about more than Misha’s genes.
Misha Angrist is Assistant Professor of the Practice at the Duke University Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy. You might know him as GenomeBoy, the name of his blog at PLoS Blogs. In 2007, Angrist became the fourth participant in the Personal Genome Project (PGP). Here is a Human Being is about how he got involved in the PGP and why he decided to take part.
The overarching aims of the PGP – highlighted on its website – centre on the development of both the technology and the protocols for making personal genomics useful for the public. For the first ten participants in the PGP (the PGP-10, pictured), this meant volunteering to have their genome sequenced and to put their genetic data, together with medical and personal information, in the public domain. With the cost of obtaining genetic data falling and a growing interest in personal genetics, as PGP #2 John Halmka put it
somebody has to do these experiments
Both the title of this book and the publisher’s blurb emphasise Angrist’s participation in the PGP and the questions that are raised by placing ones DNA sequence on the web for all to see. However, the book is not limited to this topic. It tells (at least) three intertwining stories, with Angrist’s DNA-related dilemmas forming only one part.
That is not to say that Angrist glosses over his genotype and related concerns. He is well-qualified to participate in the PGP (he has a PhD in genetics and an MS in genetic counselling); nonetheless he goes through understandable uncertainties about the possible effects of having his genome sequenced and making his genotype and phenotype information publicly available. To do so has implications for himself – the PGP consent form includes the warning that
anyone with sufficient knowledge could take your genome…and use [it] to…make synthetic DNA and plant it at a crime scene
Participating in the PGP also has implications for Angrist’s family, because information revealed by his genome also reveals probabilistic information about the genomes of his two daughters. No genetically tested father is an island – perhaps a more apt title might have been Here is a human being – and one-half of his daughters – but we don’t know which half.
In parallel to the development of the PGP, personal genomics was going mainstream. Angrist introduces us to the colourful cast of entrepreneurs starting up personal genomics companies. 2007 saw the launch of 23andme and the deCODEme service from deCODE genetics. For a few hundred dollars (and falling) these companies (among others) will type several hundred thousand variable positions on your genome and use this information to report your risk of diseases and traits back to you. Angrist describes the launch of these companies (“hark[ing] back to the dot-com era”), their tussles with the law and with medical experts. Further interesting personalities pop up in academic settings – Jim Watson is cornered at a conference, and their exchange attracts a crowd of eavesdroppers waiting to hear “what outrageous thing Watson might say next”. Naturally, George Church (the founder of the PGP) plays a central role, along with his own wife and daughter.
But the most personal aspect of this book is not Angrist’s genome. Indeed, as this review in the Lancet points out, on the subject of predicting phenotype from genotype, the story leaves off just as things are beginning to get interesting. Alongside exploring his genetics, Angrist takes this opportunity to delve into his own psyche. He writes with humour and a self-deprecation that contrasts with the eccentric egos he encounters in industry and in academia. As Angrist flits from lab to computer to conference, he discusses his anxieties from a genetic and a personal point of view. I imagine that the issues he considers – such as the nature of determinism, and personal responsibility – would come to mind when anyone started looking into their genome. Angrist is generous enough to share his experiences here in a very personal account of personal genomics.