4 June 2007
Nobel laureate Jim Watson, who co-discovered the double-helix structure of DNA, has been presented with a DVD containing his complete genomic sequence. Said to be a landmark as the “first individual genome to be sequenced for less than $1 million” (see Nature news article), the US Baylor College of Medicine of Houston and the firm 454 Life Sciences, who together sequenced the genome, reported that it had taken two months to complete (see press release). The first complete human genome sequence (a composite sequence from the DNA of several anonymous volunteers), released in 2003, cost in excess of $1 billion and took thirteen years to produce. It is hoped that eventually, the rapidly developing technology will make it possible to sequence complete genomes for as little as $1000, and in a period of hours (see previous news story).
With this step towards a future of readily available and relatively affordable genome sequencing (the National Human Genome Research Institute is planning to sequence a hundred different individual human genomes), concern has been expressed about the potential consequences. For example, making your genome sequence publicly available, as James Watson has done, has implications for relations who have similar genomes, especially as understanding of the links between genetic variants and disease susceptibility increases. Watson has reportedly opted to withhold the sequence of the APOE gene, a certain variant of which is associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease (see Observer news article), because he does not wish to know whether he has any genetic predisposition towards the disease. In addition to issues of genetic privacy, ethical objections have also been raised about equity of access to genome sequencing based on cost.