It’s rather stunning how the perspective on matters can change pretty quickly. Technology Review has an article about how 23andMe has an amazing take on genetic variation: it may be a new basis for common social identity and, hence, social networking.
"I think the idea of social networking has untapped potential," says George Church,
a pioneer in genomics at Harvard Medical School in Boston and a member
of 23andMe’s scientific advisory board. "The idea has precedence in
patients like me, people who have been enabled to find one another by
their disease. Here, people can find each other by their alleles [or
genetic variations]." […]
Like its competitors, 23andMe offers information about an individual’s
disease risk. But it has also opted to emphasize more entertaining
approaches to personal genomics, including using colorful visualization
tools to look at a subject’s ancestry and compare it with that of
celebrities from Jesse James to Benjamin Franklin and Bono. Now, to
capitalize on the boom in social networking,
the company will launch a genome-sharing tool that allows people to
compare their genome with those of family members, friends, and even
strangers who have offered up their DNA data. […]
While 23andMe is gauging interest in the enterprise from the research
community, the company’s founders also envision spurring a sort of
grassroots research effort that mirrors the rising influence of
patient-advocacy groups, such as those that have organized new research
projects about autism and Parkinson’s disease. If the trend attracts
large enough numbers, people with particular diseases could come
together to search their genomes for similarities. Or those who escaped
a particular condition despite a high genetic risk could provide
insight into lifestyle and other genetic factors that were protective.
They’re suggesting that people may start seeking each other out according to the genetic characteristics they have. Perhaps support or advocacy groups could form around genetic risks. Right now people don’t want their insurers or employers to know about their genetic quirks for obvious reasons. But can you imagine genetic peculiarities becoming the topic of cocktail party chatter? At the bars instead of "Whats your sign?" we may get "What’s your SNP (single nucleotide polymorphism)?"
We’ve come a long way in being open about diseases such as cancer; thankfully the shame of a few decades ago has largely dissipated. Perhaps genetics is the new frontier. People have identified with each other–and differentiated themselves from others–by race, religion, nationality, eye color, language and many other variables. Now comes the details of our genes. Hopefully people will come to see a deep connection among all people because, if they roll back the generations through genetic comparisons far enough, they’ll find that we all have common roots and overwhelming genetic similarity to each other.