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The right DNA for Berkeley?

Freshmen can submit swabs for DNA testing, or not. Some bioethicists are critical, but we doubt students will object.

June 14, 2010

Today we know more about ourselves and one another than we'd imagined or even wanted to just 15 years ago. DNA tests can divulge which diseases we might be prone to and which famous figures we really aren't related to, except maybe Adam and Eve. Facebook reveals the rest.

Teenagers and young adults accept this probed and public life with more equanimity than their elders. So although some ethicists are shuddering at a plan by UC Berkeley to encourage its freshmen to bond via DNA analysis, the incoming students are probably thanking the academic gods for this break from the traditional togetherness exercise — reading a common book.

Berkeley's plan is to mail DNA testing kits this summer to its incoming students, who, if they choose to participate, would swab the insides of their cheeks and send the kits back to be tested. The samples would then be analyzed for gene variations that affect reactions to alcohol, lactose and folic acid. Students could obtain their individual results on a website; group results would form part of the school's orientation program, revolving around the subject of personal health and medicine — information that teenagers who are newly out from under from their parents' watchful eyes could certainly use.

Despite the objections of bioethics experts, we doubt Berkeley students will feel coerced into giving up their cheek cells, just as many of last year's freshmen surely never felt compelled to peruse "The Omnivore's Dilemma," the chosen reading selection. Critics also point out that Walgreens recently decided not to sell genetic kits over concerns that customers might receive troubling results they wouldn't know how to interpret — but the retailer had been looking to market kits that tested for genes linked to serious medical ailments. It's obvious that teenagers shouldn't be confronted with potentially shocking information, such as a genetic propensity to Alzheimer's disease or a distant kinship to Attila the Hun.

Berkeley has taken extraordinary precautions. It chose useful but relatively innocuous genes to test for. It has reassured students that opting out is as valid a decision as sending in a swab, and has gone to great lengths to make sure that results are anonymous; students gain access to their results via unique bar codes, not through their student IDs, and there is no possibility that professors will know who participated. The samples will be destroyed after testing.

Nor does the ethicists' slippery-slope argument hold up. Like it or not, people must cope with the era of sometimes uncomfortable information. That includes learning to put reasonable safeguards in place and learning which information is worthwhile in context, the limits of genetic testing and how to respond to new data. Not all the lessons of college take place in the classroom.

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