The usual. Also, I have the ear, so to speak, of the management, so if you want tech/usability features, etc., do tell.
Until further notice this is my last post as a blogger at Discover Magazine. This shouldn’t impact regular readers. As always you can follow me by going to:
My Twitter, https://twitter.com/razibkhan
And of course, my website, http://www.razib.com
I’m excited to explore this new opportunity. Ron is still nailing down the details of look, style, and functionality, so expect some changes on my Gene Expression sub-site. To make a long story short Ron wanted to beef up his science coverage, and I was amenable. At least when it comes to my particular bailiwick. Ron has merged my archives from the old Gene Expression website with the content generated at ScienceBlogs and Discover, so no matter where I go, or if I stop blogging due to other obligations, those archives will remain as a coherent whole.
I want to emphasize that my time at Discover was incredible. I want to give special thanks to Tasha Eichenseher, Amos Zeeberg, and Sheril Kirshenbaum. As it happens none of these individuals are associated with Discover at this point (Tasha is leaving as well), but they were instrumental in allowing me to either be here (in Sheril’s case) or focus on writing (in Tasha and Amos’ case). I assume you’ll be somewhat surprised that I mention Sheril, but I feel like I have to give special thanks to her because I’m 99% sure that it was her “good word” which allowed me to catch the eye of an outfit as respectable as Discover. Unlike a blogger as writerly as Ed Yong, or Sheril herself, I’ve always been more data nerd-cum-verbal pugilist. So this leads me to praise the great management skills of the two web editors I’ve had while being a blogger at Discover. They’ve let “Razib be Razib,” by and large letting me do my thing (though yes, in the interests of professionalism I’ve moved most of the more “direct” verbal volleys to Twitter). I really can’t thank anyone else at Discover because I barely knew they existed, which, in light of recent events, seems like a good thing. Overall I give Discover a good grade in terms of understanding how blogging should be run, with a light hand. This, despite the fact that I often put up posts which rubbed many “right-thinking-people” the wrong way, and scoured the comment threads acidly.
There’s really not much else to say. Aside from a new domain, don’t expect many changes.
Happy Thanksgiving (if you are an American)!
It’s been a busy few days in the world of personal genomics. By coincidence I have a coauthored comment in Genome Biology out, Rumors of the death of consumer genomics are greatly exaggerated (it was written and submitted a while back). If you haven’t, please read the FDA’s letter, and 23andMe’s response, as much as there is one right now. Since Slate ran my piece on Monday a lot of people have offered smart, and more well informed, takes. On the one hand you have someone like Alex Tabarrok, with “Our DNA, Our Selves”, which is close to a libertarian cri de coeur. Then you have cases like Christine Gorman, “FDA Was Right to Block 23andMe”. It will be no surprise that I am much closer to Tabarrok than I am to Gorman (she doesn’t even seem to be aware that 23andMe offers a genotyping, not sequencing, service, though fuzziness on the details doesn’t discourage strong opinions from her). An interesting aspect is that many who are not deeply in the technical weeds of the issue are exhibiting politicized responses. I’ve noticed this on Facebook, where some seem to think that 23andMe and the Tea Party have something to do with each other, and the Obama administration and the FDA are basically stand-ins. In other words, some liberals are seeing this dispute as one of those attempts to evade government regulation, something they support on prior grounds. Though Tabarrok is more well informed than the average person (his wife is a biologist), there are others from the right-wing who are taking 23andMe’s side on normative grounds as well. Ultimately I’m not interested in this this argument, because it’s not going to have any significant lasting power. No one will remember in 20 years. As I implied in my Slate piece 23andMe the company now is less interesting than personal genomics the industry sector in the future. Over the long term I’m optimistic that it will evolve into a field which impacts our lives broadly. Nothing the United States government can do will change that.
Yet tunneling down to the level of 23andMe’s specific issues with the regulatory process, there is the reality that it has to deal with the US government and the FDA, no matter what the details of its science are. It’s a profit-making firm. Matt Herper has a judicious take on this, 23andStupid: Is 23andMe Self-Destructing? I don’t have any “inside” information, so I’m not going to offer the hypothesis that this is part of some grand master plan by Anne Wojcicki. I hope it is, but that’s because I want 23andMe to continue to subsidize genotyping services (I’ve heard that though 23andMe owns the machines, the typing is done by LabCorp. And last I checked the $99 upfront cost is a major loss leader; they’re paying you to get typed). I’m afraid that they goofed here, and miscalculated. As I said above, it won’t make a major difference in the long run, but I have many friends who were waiting until this Christmas to purchase kits from 23andMe.
First, download your 23andMe raw results now if you have them. If you don’t know what’s going on, the FDA has finally started to move aggressively against the firm. Unfortunately this is not surprising, as this was foreshadowed years ago. And, 23andMe has been moving aggressively to emphasize its medical, as opposed to genealogical, services over the past year. But this isn’t the story of one firm. This is the story of government response to very important structural shifts occurring in the medical delivery system of the United States. The government could potentially bankrupt 23andMe, but taking a step back that would still be like the RIAA managing to take down Napster. The information is coming, and if there’s one thing that can overpower state planning it is consumer demand. Unless the US government wants to ban their citizens from receiving their own genetic data they’re just putting off the inevitable outsourcing of various interpretation services. Engagement would probably be the better long term bet, but I don’t see that happening.
One of the stranger call-ins on my interview with Kathleen Dunn last month was when a woman who proudly declared that she was a math major in college asserted that 23andMe had told her she wasn’t at risk for many diseases which now in her 60s she had developed. I didn’t want to be too pointed about it, but if you are in your 60s you are at risk for developing many illnesses no matter what your “genetic risk.” This is clear from 23andMe’s statistics, which display high baseline risks for many common diseases. From reading comments on 23andMe discussion forums it seems that perceived false negatives are going to be a much bigger issue than false positives over the long run. If the tests are “wrong” in a direction which leaves you in a better state than predicted you might feel like you’ve dodged a bullet. On other hand if the tests are “wrong” in a direction which gave you false comfort, or add insult to injury when you’ve developed a debilitating disease, then you feel much more burned.
Keeping a close watch on media representations of the new Nature paper on the ancient Siberian genome. Here’s The New York Times, 24,000-Year-Old Body Is Kin to Both Europeans and American Indians. I don’t have a problem with the title, but the roll-out isn’t totally accurate in what it will connote to the audience in my opinion:
“What it begins to suggest is that we’re looking at a ‘Lord of the Rings’-type world – that there were many hominid populations,” says Mark Thomas, an evolutionary geneticist at University College London who was at the meeting but was not involved in the work.
This is in reference to the ancient DNA meeting where David Reich reported that the Denisovans, an exotic archaic population which contributed ~5-10 percent of the ancestry of Papuans, was itself a synthesis of Neandertals and a mysterious group currently unknown. This is not surprising, as the broad outlines of these results were presented at ASHG 2012, though no doubt they’re moving closer to publication. But for this post I want to shift the focus to a different time and place, after the ancient admixture with archaic lineages, and to the reticulation present within our own.
I do love me some sprouts! Greens, bitters, strong flavors of all sorts. I’ve always been like this. Some of this is surely environment. My family comes from a part of South Asia known for its love of bracing and bold sensation. But perhaps I was born this way? There’s a fair amount of evidence that taste has a substantial genetic component. This does not mean genes determine what one tastes, but it certainly opens the door for passive gene-environment correlations. If you do not find a flavor offensive, you are much more likely to explore it depths, and cultivate your palette.
And of course I’m not the only one with a deep interest in such questions. With the marginal income available to us many Americans have become “foodies,” searching for flavor bursts and novelties which their ancestors might never have been able to comprehend. More deeply in a philosophical sense the question of qualia reemerges if there is a predictable degree of inter-subjectivity in taste perception (OK, qualia is always there, though scientific sorts tend to view it as intractable in a fundamental sense).
Many of you probably know about Dave Chappelle’s black white supremacist sketch (NSFW video!), though fewer are aware of Leo Felton, a white supremacist (ex, after he was outed) with a black father (a less tragic outcome than Dan Burros, the Jewish American Nazi). I know, these sound like they’re out of South Park episodes, though the last two are actually not fictional. But now the media is exploding with news that a DNA test has suggested that a notorious white supremacist is 14 percent black. The same one who was recently profiled in The New York Times promoting a separatist racial vision in a small North Dakota town. I’ll be honest and admit that I don’t think that these results will hold up. (though personally I would think it was rich and very funny if they did, just like everyone else).