Do you believe that ignorance is bliss, or that knowledge power?
If you carried the gene for early-onset Alzheimer’s disease or another life-altering malady, would you want a DNA test to know about your condition so that you could more adequately prepare for your demise? Or would you prefer the bliss of ignorance so that you could enjoy the rest of your healthy days without the specter of disease looming over your life?
These are not questions the human race will have to grapple with in the distant future, on board spaceships as we wear matching silver unitards in the year 2523. This technology is here today, and for the low basement price of $99, you can spit on a swab and send it in to 23andMe to have your DNA analyzed for 48 inherited conditions, including as type 2 diabetes, cystic fibrosis, breast cancer, macular degeneration, Parkinson’s and Tay-Sachs disease. You’ll also find out your ancestry composition – where on the globe your ancestors lived – as well as any Neanderthal percentage in your blood. You’ll discover unknown relatives and their whereabouts, along with any Native American or Ashkenazi ancestors.
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Almost every human being carries 23 pairs of chromosomes, and while DNA sequencing is still difficult, expensive and time-consuming to carry out, genotyping (which is what 23andMe provides) tests you for known genetic variants. Genotyping can tell you in percentage rates whether you are likely to get certain diseases as you age.
Testing for breast cancer genes for females with a family history of the disease is becoming commonplace, to the point where many of us now know someone who has chosen to undergo a double mastectomy based not on her disease, but her likelihood of developing it in the future. A bold step for young women to take, breast cancer gene testing is normalizing the idea of genotyping in popular culture.
But the question remains: if a life-altering disease is in your future, do you want to know? Humans carrying the gene for macular degeneration might want to invest in higher quality sunglasses, head to the ophthalmologist more often and take supplements to augment their ocular health. Those at high risk for early-onset Alzheimer’s disease may want to save aggressively for the medical care they will someday surely need. And females carrying both breast cancer genes can pre-empt the disease by getting rid of their breasts altogether.
However if you knew a terrible disease was likely to strike you, would you take more vacations to spend your days wisely, or would you take fewer vacations because you are saving up for medical care? Would you take better care of your body or swing the other way because you are “fated” to be diseased no matter what? These difficult questions can only be answered deep in the heart of every individual.
Whether you are interested to find out what lies in your future or to discover what type of ancestors make up your past, the technology is here to do so. At such an affordable rate, it is possible that someday soon genotyping will be a standard procedure at every birth. But whatever the cards (or genes) may tell, no one on earth can truly know his or her future for certain. The healthiest amongst us could get struck down by a piece of falling space trash, and genetically inferior types could outlive the biggest health nut. Life is a fine balance of seizing the day and planning for tomorrow, and genotyping may or may not have a place in yours.
Image: Kevin Dooley