In defense of the celebrity genome

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According to a news article in Nature (subscriber only), some scientists are “alarmed” that a number of high-profile scientists and public figures are going to be the first people to have their genomes sequenced (the published public sequence is a mish-mash of a number of people, and the now-public Celera sequence, though largely Craig Venter, was also from more than one person).

For those unaware of this, 454 Life Sciences is currently in the process of sequencing James Watson’s genome, Craig Venter claims to have an analysis of his finished sequence in review at PLoS Biology, and the X Prize in Genomics will be given to the first person to efficiently sequence a number of genomes, including those of “celebrities such as television journalist Larry King, cosmologist Stephen Hawking, Google co-founder Larry Page, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and former junk-bond trader Michael Milken”.

Some quotes from those who don’t like this:

“This is almost like recreational genomics, or the molecular equivalent of a whole-body scan, for those who have boundless curiosity and cash,” says Kathy Hudson, director of Johns Hopkins University’s Genetics and Public Policy Centre in Washington DC. “It will be sort of a sad statement if that’s what we end up getting out of the Human Genome Project.”


“If all the sequences obtained over the next year or two are done on scientists with strong financial positions, that will send a message quite contrary to what the genome project aimed to achieve,” says Francis Collins, head of the US National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) in Bethesda, Maryland.

“I’d hate the availability of single-genome sequencing to be based purely on money and fame,” says Michael Ashburner, a geneticist at the University of Cambridge, UK. “Just doing famous or very rich people is bloody tacky, actually.”

I’ll grant that celebrating sequencing the genomes of a bunch of celebrities is pretty tacky. Fair enough. But these critcs are entirely missing the point.

1. I haven’t thought to hard about this, but can anyone think of a major technology that was not first used by the rich? Cars, comupters, the internet, air travel, any major medical technology– all of these things were first available to those with the money to buy them. After the frontier has been broken and the technology proven, it will be improved, made more cost effective, and eventually be available to the more general public. In the article, a comparison is made between sequencing your genome and getting a private space flight, with the implication that both are ridiculous luxuries for the rich. The explcit goal of the X Prize for space flight, of course, is “to make space travel safe, affordable and accessible to everyone through the creation of a personal spaceflight industry.” The same principle is at work here.

2. Many people are wary of genetic technologies and what they bring. There are issues with privacy, with “genetic discrimination”, with what to do if you know you could pass on a genetic disease, etc. These are not issues to be taken lightly, but the critics above seem to think that the first people to have their genomes sequenced should be the people that have no idea what genetics is. According to the article, one institutional review board required that any person having their genome sequenced in a given study had to have at least a masters degree in genetics. That’s not a bad idea, because in the end, the best way to show you think that something is safe and effective is to do it to yourself first. If the first people having their genomes sequenced were individuals with no knowledge of genetics, there is no doubt the scientific community would be accused of taking advantage of ignorance get people to participate, of using less-educated people as guinea pigs, of scientific irresponsibility, and worse. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t…

N.B. if anyone wants to sequence my genome (one hell of a genome, if I do say so myself), please be in touch.



  1. “…can anyone think of a major technology that was not first used by the rich?” 
    Fire. Atlatl. Loin-Cloths and Capes. Stone Scrapers and other hand held Paleolithic tools. 
    I think we can push “rich” into the times before coinage, but once there are rich people on Earth, almost all inovations will be put to use in their vicinity. Being rich implies having a surplus of necessities. Humans without surpluses have little time or energy to inovate and experiment. The inovating individual may not be rich, but will likely try to use a successful inovation to trade to the rich person for some other desirable item, or status in their society or some such. 
    My preference, rather than bemoan rich celebrity interest would be to milk it for all it was worth, along the lines of the new space entrepenures. First drive the price down, then expand the market. Make the technique pay it’s own way rather than beg the mighty for a slice of the tax pie.

  2. Why Larry King? The guy’s a dope. Replace him with Cindy Crawford or Natalie Portman… for affirmative action purposes, of course. They’re celebrities, super-hot, and smart. Plenty of interesting stuff to be found therein.

  3. LOL. No no no, Jessica Alba – much more instructive. 
    Yeah, they’re missing the point.  
    My genome would be pretty flash too, and I’m up for it.

    “Jessica said ‘…The second somebody says no to me is the second I’m going to jump up and say yes.’ “ 
    No, Jessica! No!

  5. The Rock

  6. > No, Jessica! No! 
    Hey, those are pretty nails — are they real? No? Well, they’re still nice.

  7. The internet was first used by college students/professors, who were not themselves rich, although they were part of rich institutions.

  8. What a pathetic bunch of interfering, whingeing, snivelling, puritanical twerps. No wonder that the sage layman ignores almost everything that “scientists” find ‘alarming’. Most of them probably can’t even catch a ball or a joke. They have ugly wives and sporadic hair. Their children are cross-eyed and boring. Bah.

  9. Jessica Alba – much more instructive. 
    But what if it turns out it really is full of cat dna? That would be so weird… 
    I’d still do her, of course, but it would be weird.

  10. *All* women are made up of 50% cat DNA.

  11. Where are the other 50% from?

  12. Yeah, this is one of those “X always happens” statements that properly translates to “X often turns out in this way, in some broad sense.” New technology that successfully sells as a luxury often sells to rich people first. Big computers, personal computers, PDAs, spreadsheet and word processor software, video games, laptops, these all sold first to “rich” people in the sense that starving kids in El Salvador don’t get a lot of Nintendo, but not in the sense that the original market was only people who could afford a summer house in Nantucket or some such thing.  
    A lot of clever technology is available based mainly on where you are. Local electric or phone service chose its early adopters partly by location. If you want some cutting-edge cancer treatment, it helps to live close to a cutting-edge cancer hospital.