Wednesday 26 June 2013

Where do we come from?

The Irish radio station Newstalk has a science magazine programme called Futureproof.  Last Saturday live in the Science Gallery, they did a piece on genetic testing.  The programme's presenter Jonathan McCrea had sent (this is one he did earlier) a saliva sample off to a company in California called 23andMe and they had sent back the results. McCrea was given his results live on the wireless (wired up to a galvanic skin response stress detector) so it was interesting and informative - for McCrea obviously but for the studio audience as well.  McCrea was relieved to discover that his risk of developing Alzheimer's was rather small - because his grandmother had descended into that darkness. He also found that he was 'clear' of known genetic predispositions to cystic fibrosis, breast cancer and some other hazards.  Good for him!

One of the experts on the programme was geneticist and blogger Kevin Mitchell from TCD's Genetics Department. Mitchell addressed another issue that can be teased out from the scads of genetic data that 23andMe is able to wrest from a gob of spit.  The medical prognoses are clearly about McCrea's future.  The pattern of genetic variants also allows The Company to make inferences about where his people are buried. McCrea has a genetic profile shared by many of North European descent including a substantive subset of these variants which point to ancestors from the Hiberno-British Archipelago.  Back further we now know that some modern humans (us) got the ould leg over some Neanderthals before these-our-cousins joined dinosaurs and dodos on the Extinction Express to Oblivion.  So there was an opportunity to jest about the percentage of McCrea's genome that was Neanderthal in origin - a tad above the European average but probably not significantly so. You can make jokes about brow-ridges and Neanderthals and it is deemed to be inoffensive because they're all long dead.  On the global scale of things, the Irish are quite genetically homogenous - not as pure-bred as Icelanders but much more so than, say, US Americans.

If such a programme was broadcast in São Paulo it could get a little more edgy because African ancestry in Brazilians is very poorly correlated with actual skin colour.  Yet darkness is strongly correlated with social class and it is not correct to say that Brazil has no racial prejudice.  So there might not be so much badinage when it is revealed that the 'white' presenter has rather more African ancestry than the 'black' lady who makes the tea off set.  Mark Shriver a genetic anthroplogist from Penn State has shown a lesser but demonstrable amount of black-in-white and white-in-black in US citizens.  Famously in the descendants of Thomas Jefferson and his slave (and wife's half sister!) Sally Hemings, whom he started bonking when she was less than 16.  I've given joy to the growing multiculturalism in Ireland; these genetic tests may help us park racism and take everyone as we find them - all of them, not just the epidermis.

I might mention that the 4th hire of 23andMe was an Irishman called Brian Naughton who got his first degree in Genetics at TCD.  If you sign over $99 to The Company, they'll send you a kit to receive your saliva and within 6-8 weeks they'll get back to you with results.  20% off for second and subsequent samples! If you send a copy of your TCD degree you get it all for half-price (kidding!).  Dau.II is now rooming with another geneticist in Dublin who has shelled out for a test.  Yesterday Dau.II asked if I thought it was a good idea for us all (Bob and Boblettes) to get tested.  She and her sibs have a rather rich brew on the ancestry front (Irish (both left and right footers), Scots, French, Lebanese, Sahel African) and the grand-daughter includes another continent in hers.  I've had a rather fond conceit that my maternal grand-father was London Jewish but my Mum denies this (vehemently), so maybe $99 would help settle the question?

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