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Illumina Gets into Glenn Close’s Genes

March 18, 2010

That’s g-e-n-e-s, not j-e-a-n-s

Actress Glenn Close has announced that her personal genome has been sequenced by the biotech company Illumina.   This makes her the first female to announce publicly that her DNA has been sequenced and to attach her name to her genetic information.

Ms. Close has openly discussed her family’s history of mental illness (here in an article for the Huffington Post) and her desire to decrease the social stigma attached to mental illness.  By making her genetic information and family history available to researchers, she has provided another tool to help biologists and psychologists understand the genetic basis of mental health problems.

Unfortunately, simply knowing the sequence of all of one person’s DNA is not enough to unlock the mysteries of mental illness, or the host of other conditions influenced by our family history.  There is no stretch of DNA in our bodies labeled “this will make you struggle to control your weight” or “this means you will suffer from depression.”  Typically, when researchers search for a genetic abnormality connected to a family trait, they start with a large family, identify the members that have the disease or trait and those that don’t, trace how those people are related and how the trait might be passed on from generation to generation, and then collect samples of DNA from each person to look for changes that correspond with the trait.

However, more than just her direct contribution to science, Ms. Close is bringing much-needed attention to the genetic basis of mental illness.  She is also raising awareness of the personal genome.  These are both noble public health causes.  The more families researchers can draw on for information, the better their studies will be.

There is a darker side to knowing your own genome, however. It’s the reason I am hesitant at this time to have my own DNA sequenced, and the reason that so many people allow their sequence to be prepared but choose to remain anonymous.  Some day we will know how to read the whole genetic code.  We will have an understanding of what each and every gene does, and we will know what certain gene variations and mutations mean for a person’s future.  Think Gattaca (very cool movie, by the way, more thought provoking than truly entertaining).  Without some protections, like laws that say you can’t discriminate against a person based on their genetic information or family genetic profile, there is no guarantee that genetic information won’t be used against someone.  Like an insurance company finding out a person has a gene for Alzheimer’s and using that as a reason to deny coverage.  Maybe somewhat paranoid on my part, but unless genetic profile is considered protected personal health information and subject to those laws, I don’t think it’s safe to let that information out of the bag.  Or cell.

In case you’re curious — the first full human genome ever sequenced was published in 2001 by J. Craig Venter (the same guy we talk about below) and his team at Celera Genomics.  Dr. Venter later revealed that the DNA used for the sequencing was his own.  Hence Ms. Close is the first woman to publicly name her own genome.

In case you’re curious pt. 2 — having your DNA sequenced isn’t difficult.  For you, anyway.  The DNA can be taken from a regular blood draw or even from scraping some cheek cells from inside your mouth.  It’s honest-to-goodness as easy as collecting the material for a dog-breed test from your family pet.  The link is not an endorsement of a particular breed testing company, just a link to what the tests are/do.

And in other news about genes

What’s the difference between Glenn Close and a hydra?  Not as much as one would think.

Hydra are tiny animals in the phylum cnidaria (don’t pronounce the “c”) which also includes jellyfish, corals and sea anemones.  The J. Craig Venter Institute announced the sequence of the complete genome for the freshwater hydra species Hydra magnipapillata. Their findings were published in the March 14 issue of the journal Nature.  Additional research done on the hydra genome  by two teams, one at the University of California Santa Barbara and one at UC Irvine, indicates that humans and hydra have more genetic similarity in certain areas than previously thought.  For more on this research, see this article from the March 15, 2010 issue of BioTechniques or the Nature paper above.

What good is knowing the complete sequence of all the DNA in a tiny freshwater organism?  For one thing, hydra are a lot easier to grow and manipulate than humans, physically and ethically.  If certain genes in the hydra are similar to those in humans, research on those genes in hydra could give insight into human health.

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