Everyday genetics for the modern home

Glenn McGee

A drop of blood and an iPod are all you need to create your genetic database, according to McGee.

Photo by Mark Stehle

Whenever you lie in the sun, you reprogram your genes.

Whenever you inhale smoke, you reprogram your genes.

Now, thanks to the revolution ushered in by the Human Genome Project, you may be able to reprogram your genes by consulting a database.

The flexibility and complexity of what Glenn McGee dubs “geneware,” combined with computing power that makes genetic information easier to analyze, has opened the door to a Brave New World in which people make life-altering decisions based on inaccurate information about their genetic makeup.

This in turn has prompted McGee to write a user’s guide to this new world, “Beyond Genetics: Putting the Power of DNA to Work in Your Life” (William Morrow, 2003).

The associate director of the Center for Bioethics, McGee spends a lot of time pondering a host of hot-button issues, from stem cell research to cloning. Genomics—the science of identifying what’s inside the human genome and how it works—is just the latest in a long line of ethical quandaries McGee has tackled.

This one, though, is a bit different from the others. For starters, it’s one in which the average Joe or Jane holds the power to make serious decisions affecting their own and others’ lives. “Will you want to live in Denver once you find out that you have a high susceptibility to [illness caused by] ground-level ozone?” McGee asked by way of example.

The same instant access to huge amounts of data that causes people to go to their doctors armed with misinformation off the Internet could prove even more problematic when genetic information is added to it. “Now we’ve got this horrible road map [of the human genome], and you can’t get anywhere with it, but everybody’s going to use it,” he says.

“How do you change the environment so that maybe people won’t go off half-cocked with bad information?”

“Beyond Genetics” sets out to perform that task. Each chapter addresses a different scientific issue in language anyone can understand. His goal is not to restrict the flow of genetic information but to arm those who sift through it with common sense.

Writing the book was made easier by Penn’s academic environment. “This is a place that believes that common sense must accompany every aspect of scientific research,” he said of Penn—a quality he attributes to the continuing influence of founder Benjamin Franklin.

McGee will speak on “Beyond Genetics” at the Penn Bookstore Oct. 27. See “What’s On.”

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Originally published on October 16, 2003