Nov. 30 Human Genome Panel Preview: Common Genetics Myths

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The completion of the Human Genome Project 10 years ago promised a new era of disease treatment and personalized medicine. But have these hopes been realized? On Wednesday, November 30, a panel of experts that includes geneticists, an ethicist, and a legal scholar will engage in a lively discussion on the topic of The Human Genome and Human Health: Will the Promise Be Fulfilled? Discussing where genomics should go in the future, how it might change the doctor’s office in the next decade, and the disparities that exist in the developing world, the panelists will evaluate both the promises of sequencing the human genome and the reality. Below, Rob DeSalle, who curated the Museum’s exhibition The Genomic Revolution 10 years ago, addresses three common myths about genetics.

Myth: Phenotypic traits are only transmitted via DNA.

Rob DeSalle: A host of environmental factors influence how much a genetic predisposition will actually be expressed in a person’s phenotype, or outward form and appearance. The problem is that genes have been put up on pedestals because they are easy to understand, while the environmental interaction that produces phenotypes is extremely complex. And then there’s also a new field of biology called epigenetics, where the environment actually changes something in the genome and implements a phenotypic change. So what we inherit from our parents and what we pass on to our children isn’t the end of the game.

Myth: There are racial genes.

DeSalle: The problem here is the definition: what is a race? If you say people with black skin are one race and people with white skin are another, you’re so oversimplifying race that any inference you make about it is useless. In the case of skin color, there are many ways, genetically, to have black skin or white skin. When scientists look at the human genome, they see patterns that are reminiscent of separation of groups of people, but these are historical artifacts and are never complete.

Myth: Human traits and behaviors such as criminality, infidelity, intelligence, and social networking are all based on genetics.

DeSalle: Many environmental factors shape these traits and behaviors. They aren’t as simple as Mendel’s peas. Sometimes, there is a genetic component to someone’s intelligence or sociability—autism, for example, renders people very poor at socializing—but a genetic component does not mean a single gene. You’re looking in a big haystack for a needle that’s not there, because there will never be one gene for determining intelligence or sociability. At the event on November 30, the panelists will be asking whether the promise of modern human genetics is going to fulfill itself. You’re going to have two panelists say yes, it could; two say well, maybe not; but neither one will say absolutely yes or absolutely not. And that’s the really interesting aspect of it.

Click here to buy tickets for The Human Genome and Human Health: Will the Promise Be Fulfilled?