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DNA Databases

  • Teacher Resource
  • Posted 09.26.03
  • NOVA

This video segment from NOVA: "Cracking the Code of Life" explains the technology that makes DNA databases possible, and asks Boston University ethicist George Annas and Stanford University's Mark Schena some of the privacy and ethics questions that will surely arise as use of this technology becomes more widespread.

NOVA DNA Databases
  • Media Type: Video
  • Running Time: 4m 16s
  • Size: 6.8 MB
  • Level: Grades 9-12

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Source: NOVA: "Cracking the Code of Life"

This resource was adapted from NOVA: "Cracking the Code of Life."


Increasingly, private biotech firms around the world are storing and analyzing genetic information in vast DNA databases. These companies spend millions of dollars combing the human genome in search of the genetic root of everything from intelligence to sexual orientation to disease. One technology that has dramatically increased the amount of genetic material that can be stored and analyzed in these DNA databases is the gene chip. Just twelve square centimeters in size, these glass slides can hold tens of thousands of tiny DNA samples, all of which can be analyzed by a computer for their genetic makeup.

Currently the kinds of tests that scientists conduct on the samples stored on these chips are little different from the standard genetic tests doctors perform on patients today. Each gene chip, though, holds as many as eighty thousand samples, meaning that DNA from one thousand people could be analyzed for eighty different genetic diseases. Perhaps more importantly, it means that doctors may one day be able to analyze a patient's entire functional genetic record -- all thirty thousand genes -- in a matter of moments.

Even though our understanding of genetics is in its relative infancy, scientists have already systematically isolated the causes of many genetic diseases. For instance, researchers have identified more than four thousand diseases that are caused by individual genes. And for many of these conditions, like Huntington disease and cystic fibrosis, scientists have located the actual gene responsible. Gene chip technology allows doctors to screen for all of these genes at once.

Perhaps more importantly, the technology will enable doctors to predict a patient's susceptibility to the countless diseases caused by multiple genes working in concert. Scientists envision a day when computers will run complex algorithms to analyze a patient's predisposition to a condition like retinitis pigmentosa, to which at least twenty genes, each with hundreds of variations, have been linked. The potential for the technology in this realm is virtually endless. The more we know about these complex diseases, the more useful gene chips will ultimately be.

Questions for Discussion

  • Why could a DNA profile be called a future diary?
  • What are some of the ethical issues surrounding the creation of DNA databases?
  • What are some of the implications of creating DNA chips that would allow doctors to screen newborns for many diseases?

Resource Produced by:

					WGBH Educational Foundation

Collection Developed by:

						WGBH Educational Foundation

Collection Credits

Collection Funded by:

						National Science Foundation

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