My Genome, My Self

The New York Times recently featured a comprehensive and well-written article by noted Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker on the rise of consumer genomics. Pinker is a participant in the Personal Genome Project, an ambitious initiative to sequence the DNA of 100,000 volunteers for the purpose of better understanding how genes, health, and behavior are interrelated.

He also submitted a spit sample to 23andMe, a direct-to-consumer genetic testing company that promises information about not only disease risk, but also personal traits like food preference, athletic ability, and baldness. In Pinker's case, the genetic test results were, well, flat-out wrong. Despite genetic predictions to the contrary, he likes coffee and beer, prefers hiking and cycling to squash, and has a full head of hair.

The article reinforces several important messages about our current understanding of the relationship between genes and health, personality, intelligence, and other complex traits. Most genetic tests provide only limited information about your odds of developing an illness, being bald, or preferring brussel sprouts over broccoli.  Both genes and our environment play a key role in shaping who we are. For a given illness or trait, there are likely hundreds, if not thousands of genes that, along with environment, make us who we are. Current research tools are not yet sophisticated enough to tease out many these relationships.

We will, no doubt, understand more about our genetic selves in the years to come; research initiatives like the Personal Genome Project and Northwestern's NUgene project will hopefully shed new light on many genetic mysteries.  For the time being, as Pinker points out, if you want to know if you're good at math, take a math test.  And the simplest genetic test is your family history.