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What does everyone need to understand about genetics?

Bryan Sykes: It’s perhaps too deterministic to say that your genes determine everything you do.  They don't.  But, if you like, it’s like the deck of cards that you're dealt at birth.  What you do with that deck, like any card game, depends a lot on your choices, but it is influenced by those cards, those genes that you got when you were born.

What I’ve enjoyed about genetics is looking to see what it tells us about where we’ve come from because those pieces of DNA, they came from somewhere.  They weren't just sort of plucked out of the air.  They came from ancestors.  And it’s a very good way of finding out about your ancestors, not only who they are but just imagining their lives.  

You're made up from DNA from thousands and millions of ancestors who’ve lived in the past, most of them now dead, but they’ve survived, they’ve got through, they’ve passed their DNA on to their children and it’s come down to you.  It doesn't matter who you are.  You could be the president, you could be the prime minister, you could be the head of a big corporation, you could be a taxi driver, you could be someone who lives on the street, but the same is true of everybody.  

I’m very proud of all of my ancestors that have got their DNA through to me, and I think everybody should be, particularly in America.  Because all of you have ancestors that took a lot of trouble to get here, whether it was across the frozen wastes of Siberia or more recently on ships from Europe or, unfortunately, ships from Africa against your ancestors’ will.  But everybody’s undergone an important and difficult journey to get here.  

What are the most important applications for genetics today?

Bryan Sykes: No doubt, most of the funding for the advances in genetics, for example, the complete sequencing of the human genome, has come from an ambition to learn more about health issues.  And certainly there have been good strides made, perhaps not as successful as one would have thought, to identify the genes involved in diseases that most of us will eventually suffer from, if we live that long, things like cancer and high blood pressure, diabetes and so on.  They actually have extremely complicated genetic ingredients, but they are slowly being unraveled.  That's where most of the new technology has been discovered and been developed for health care purposes.  

For the ancestry use, which is noncontroversial--I mean, the health care is, in a way, thinking about the future, predicting what DNA tells you about what's going to happen to you in the future, which is always uncertain--but looking at the past, it’s certain because you have a past.  There's no speculation that your DNA came from your ancestors.  It did.  So that's uncontroversial in that respect.  But the technology for exploring that, which is making leaps and bounds, has come through the health care benefits.  

So I think those are the two main things that people are learning about themselves and who they’re related to, where they’ve come from.  And that does—and I know from experience—that does add a lot to what people . . . people's sense of identity.  It’s not for everybody.  Not everyone's very interested in it, but a lot of people are, and I think that's a very good thing.

Directed / Produced by
Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd

More from the Big Idea for Friday, December 06 2013

The Genetic Revolution

If the 21st century is to become the 'genomic century,' as many believe, we need to have an open, frank conversation about how we view human difference. This is the message from Harvard profess... Read More…

 

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