Stephen Pinker, The New York Times, and Counsyl

imageAlthough I can hardly hope to introduce or discuss these recent events any better than Daniel MacArthur has already given at Genetic Future, I will at least bring this new information to your attention.

Last Wednesday the New York Times printed “My Genome, My Self”, an article written by Stephen Pinker, one of the Personal Genome Project’s “First 10.”  In the article, Pinker talks about his experience with genome sequencing through the PGP.  It is especially interesting since Pinker analyzes the issue from the point of view of a psychologist.  I highly recommend reading this article if you are at all interested in personalized medicine or genetics.

Much of the article discusses the confusing results that are returned by genome/disease analysis, due to our current lack of understanding in this enormous field:

“It became all the more confusing when I browsed for genes beyond those on the summary page. Both the P.G.P. and the genome browser turned up studies that linked various of my genes to an elevated risk of prostate cancer, deflating my initial relief at the lowered risk. Assessing risks from genomic data is not like using a pregnancy-test kit with its bright blue line. It’s more like writing a term paper on a topic with a huge and chaotic research literature. You are whipsawed by contradictory studies with different sample sizes, ages, sexes, ethnicities, selection criteria and levels of statistical significance. Geneticists working for 23andMe sift through the journals and make their best judgments of which associations are solid. But these judgments are necessarily subjective, and they can quickly become obsolete now that cheap genotyping techniques have opened the floodgates to new studies.”

Pinker and Genetic Genealogy

Pinker, who has had mtDNA and Y-DNA ancestry testing, discusses these results as well:

“It’s thrilling to find yourself so tangibly connected to two millenniums of history. And even this secular, ecumenical Jew experienced a primitive tribal stirring in learning of a deep genealogy that coincides with the handing down of traditions I grew up with. But my blue eyes remind me not to get carried away with delusions about a Semitic essence. Mitochondrial DNA, and the Y chromosome, do not literally tell you about “your ancestry” but only half of your ancestry a generation ago, a quarter two generations ago and so on, shrinking exponentially the further back you go. In fact, since the further back you go the more ancestors you theoretically have (eight great-grandparents, sixteen great-great-grandparents and so on), at some point there aren’t enough ancestors to go around, everyone’s ancestors overlap with everyone else’s, and the very concept of personal ancestry becomes meaningless. I found it just as thrilling to zoom outward in the diagrams of my genetic lineage and see my place in a family tree that embraces all of humanity.”

Counsyl – A New Player in the Field

In the article, Pinker references a new entrant in the field of personalized medicine, Counsyl:

“The genes analyzed by a new company called Counsyl are more actionable, as they say in the trade. Their “universal carrier screen” is meant to tell prospective parents whether they carry genes that put their potential children at risk for more than a hundred serious diseases like cystic fibrosis and alpha thalassemia.”

According to their website, Counsyl plans to offer a saliva-based test for more than 100 serious genetic diseases.  The test will be offered directly to consumers through the website, as well as through medical centers in the U.S.  There is no launch date set.

In addition to the articles at Genetic Future, you can read more reactions to this piece at:

Blaine Bettinger

Intellectual property attorney, genealogist, and author of The Genetic Genealogist since 2007