This is my genome. There are many others like it, but this one is mine.

Paul Raven @ 19-01-2011

With the increasing difficulty of getting people to actually sign up for military service in the first place, you’d think the Pentagon would make more of an effort to not treat its soldiery as disposable meatbags. Or at least I’d think that… which is one more reason to add to the list of reasons that I’m not a five-star general, I guess.

Aaaaaanyway, here’s the skinny on a Pentagon report that recommends the Department of Defense get some more mileage out of their human resources by collecting and sequencing the DNA of their soldiers en masse [via grinding.be]:

According to the report, the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Veteran’s Administration (VA) “may be uniquely positioned to make great advances in this space. DoD has a large population of possible participants that can provide quality information on phenotype and the necessary DNA samples. The VA has enormous reach-back potential, wherein archived medical records and DNA samples could allow immediate longitudinal studies to be conducted.”

Specifically, the report recommends that the Pentagon begin collecting sequencing soldiers’ DNA for “diagnostic and predictive applications.” It recommends that the military begin seeking correlations between soldiers’ genotypes and phenotypes (outward characteristics) “of relevance to the military” in order to correlate the two. And the report says — without offering details — that both “offensive and defensive military operations” could be affected.

That HuffPo piece leads off with the privacy angle, and wanders onto the more interesting (if potentially nasty) territory of promotional assessment based on genetic factors – a little like like a version of Gattaca where your perfection entitles you to use bigger and better guns. (Or, if you’re lucky, a job in the generals’ tent instead of the trenches.) More interesting still is the news that the DoD already has over 3 million DNA samples on file…

HuffPo being HuffPo, the piece ends with a blustering condemnation of the report:

Soldiers, having signed away many of their rights upon enlistment, should not be used for research that would not otherwise comport with our values, just because they are conveniently available.

Our enormous military establishment is a whole world unto itself, and there is no good reason why that world should depart from the standards that Congress so definitively banned in the rest of the employment world. Congress should prohibit the military from spending money on sequencing individual soldiers’ genomes (without individualized medical or forensic cause) or carrying out large-scale research on soldiers’ DNA.

Yeah, good luck with that. Frankly, I’d have thought a cheaper and more effective option for selecting the optimum soldierly phenotypes would be taking a more honest approach at the recruitment screening phase…


Genome sequencing for <$5000

Paul Raven @ 09-11-2009

digital rendering of DNAThe title says it all, really; Californian biotech company Complete Genomics has announced publicly that it has…

… sequenced three human genomes for an average cost of $4,400. The most recently sequenced genome–which happens to be that of genomics pioneer George Church–cost just $1,500 in chemicals, the cheapest published yet. [via FuturePundit]

“So what?” you might be thinking. Well, for a start, cheaper genome sequencing will pay off fast for the medical field, as it’ll give them more data to study; also, lowering the price to “consumer” levels (albeit the sort of consumer who doesn’t flinch at the idea of laying out a few thousand bucks for a bunch of data that they themselves don’t have the training to do anything with) opens up a whole raft of potential applications, both medical and otherwise.

Other experts are downplaying Complete Genomics’ announcement, however, because the “reagent cost” of the sequencing doesn’t tell the full story:

Calculating the cost of sequencing a human genome is a tricky business–price estimates can vary depending on what’s included in the calculation. One common measure is the cost of the chemicals used, and this is what Complete Genomics used. However, this measure doesn’t incorporate the cost of the machines that do the sequencing, the human labor, or the computational effort required to assemble raw sequence information into a whole genome. “What’s important is not just the reagent costs, but also the cost of analyzing the sequence,” says Jeff Schloss, program director for technology development at the National Human Genome Research Center, in Bethesda, MD. “It’s unclear how computational costs for this method compare to some of the others.”

My guess would be that CG doesn’t really care about that, though. It looks like they’re taking a leaf from the Web2.0 playbook by rolling out the service at the lowest cost possible in order to get a good toe-hold in an emerging market: make sequencing available, and then watch your early-adopter users to see what people will actually use it for. That said, the $5,000 sequence isn’t available to the general public just yet, but I doubt it’ll be long before it is… and I doubt CG will be the only player on the field by that point, either. [image by ynse]


Beginner’s guide to DNA sequencing

Paul Raven @ 28-09-2009

Model DNA moleculeGenetic engineering and DNA sequencing are regular features in our news posts here at Futurismic, and in many other venues much less explicitly future-focussed. The technology of life’s tiny building blocks is steadily becoming ubiquitous – hell, you can even buy a DNA synthesizer on eBay [via Paul McAuley] – but it’s still a pretty hardcore scientific discipline, one that takes years of study and research to fully understand.

Luckily for us curious laypersons, Ars Technica is running a series of articles aiming to explain the basics of genetic science in terms that we should be able to grasp – though a basic high-school level understanding of science is probably still a prerequisite to get the best out of it. The first instalment is all about the basic principles of DNA sequencing – the underlying ideas that the latest and greatest methods are built upon. Some of the diagrams and chemical names might be a bit intimidating, but it’s a well-written piece and worth persisting with if you’re genuinely curious about how it all works. [image by net_efekt]