New Advancements For the Designer Baby Industry

Every day, it seems, your DNA spills more and more secrets about you. This time it's the color of your eyes. Researchers in the Netherlands just published a study in Current Biology (subscription required)  claiming the best results yet in using a person's DNA to predict what color the person's eyes are. Are we now one step closer to designer babies?

Anyone who's ever done a series of Punnett squares  in high school bio knows that it's not easy to predict the outcome of mixing genetic traits, even on the simple scale of a diagram. But the Dutch scientists say they were 90 percent accurate in determining whether a person had blue or brown eyes based solely on their DNA.

The research team tested their method by studying 6,000 Dutch people from Rotterdam, 68 percent of whom had blue eyes and 23 percent of whom had brown eyes. They looked at the variation in eight different genes, each of which is known to be connected not only to eye color, but also the pigments that control skin and hair color. But the science is somewhat rudimentary at this point—all the Dutch tested were fair-skinned native Europeans. When different peoples and new eye colors came into play, the test's accuracy dropped to only about 70 percent. 

Seventy percent isn't bad (unless it's your final exam in English literature). However, when you talk about forensic science and using DNA evidence in criminal investigations, 70 percent isn't good enough. Ninety percent isn't either, and the researchers acknowledge this. Nevertheless, the Netherlands Forensic Institute intends to start using kind of identity biotech in its investigations next year, Nature reports. 

Granted, the Dutch authorities probably aren't going to try to pin convictions solely on connections between DNA and eye color—given that 68 percent of people in the study had blue eyes, it probably wouldn't do a ton of good anyway. A better use would be to use DNA evidence recovered at a crime scene to determine what color eyes the offender probably had, narrowing the search for suspects. Still, how do we know that these kinds of tests won't affect the authorities' attitudes—if officers learn through DNA testing that their suspect is probably blue-eyed, would they be more apt to dismiss other forms of evidence that pointed to a brown-eyed person? 

As noted in an earlier Big Think blog post, the legitimacy of most forensic science has been called into question by a U.S. Congress-mandated report into its accuracy. That report concluded that only nuclear DNA tests were reliable to connect a suspect to a crime, and that kind of DNA science—matching it to a person—is a far trying from trying to read someone's genes and tell whether they have blue eyes or not.

Of course, there is another side to getting close to figuring out the genetics of eye color—designer babies. If scientists know that the expression of certain genes in certain ways equals blue eyes, then you could ask for you child's genes to be designed in that way. This blogger, for one, thinks that's absolutely ridiculous. But rather than rage against genetically-aided over-parenting, I'm going to take solace in the fact that the Dutch scientists don't have us hazel-eyed people figured out yet.

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Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.