Berkeley DNA tests revisited

2 minute read

I wrote about the UC Berkeley genetic testing of incoming freshmen earlier this spring. The summer is halfway over and the saliva kits have been sent. Now Scientific American has a long and balanced article on the contrasting approaches to genetic testing at Berkeley and an upper-level seminar at Stanford: “Exposing the Student Body: Stanford Joins U.C. Berkeley in Controversial Genetic Testing of Students”.

This is an article worth reading by anyone interested in personalized genomics or bioethics. I wouldn’t have expected that university classes would be such an early battleground for genetic information, privacy rights, and junk science. But nothing about either program is unprecedented. I wrote in 2005 about genetic testing associated with a course at Penn State. As I noted in 2005, I have a lot of concerns about applying these genetic tests to students. They can have an educational effect, but not always a beneficial one.

The UC-Berkeley program actually provides vastly less information than the ancestry testing that has been applied to students in courses in the past. That’s my main objection – it’s an awful lot of trouble for essentially no scientific value. I mean, they might as well just do blood types!

There’s a lot in the article about the thinking of the main decision makers. I’ll share these two paragraphs:

In fact, after Salari originally proposed the class last fall, a Stanford task force of about 30 basic scientists, clinical scientists, genetic professors, genetics counselors, bioethicists, legal counselors and students spent several months working through the various ethical issues and establishing safeguards to protect students. In contrast, the organizers of Berkeley's project incurred criticism because they spent hardly any time considering the potential reaction to their new orientation program. Kimberly Tallbear, a professor of science, technology and environmental policy at Berkeley, explains that neither [Dean] Mark Schlissel nor any of the project's other organizers consulted with Berkeley's bioethics community. "Schlissel said several times they were surprised about the controversy," Tallbear says. "I said to him, 'Well doesn't that tell you that you needed input from us? Because we could have told you about the controversy and debate.'"

The article also discusses the “research study” aspect – participants will be asked to sign an informed consent form and data will be kept. It may seem like the three genotypes provided to the students would not be very interesting as research topics. But it’s not too hard to imagine psychology grad students in three years becoming very interested in research projects involving a high-risk population for binge drinking and known ALDH2 genotypes. Berkeley freshmen may be enrolling now in the first phase of a long-term research study on alcohol and sexual assault.