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NOVA scienceNOW: Public Genomes

Program Overview


Commercial SNP-chip testing, or looking at tiny pieces of DNA to assess a person's risk of illness, is a controversial topic and some critics say of little value. Nevertheless, people are still signing up to discover what might be hidden in their genes. Now, George Church's "Personal Genome Project" is asking thousands of people to volunteer to have their entire genomes sequenced and posted on the Internet for all to see, in hopes that this data will help uncover the complex causes of disease.

This NOVA scienceNOW segment:

  • Reports that personal DNA testing was named Time magazine's 2008 invention of the year and notes that thousands of people, including celebrities, have signed up to find out about their genetic makeup.

  • Explains that DNA is made of long strings of four chemicals (adenine, guanine, thymine, and cytosine) and that the billions of combinations of these chemicals encode the structure for building our bodies and keeping them running.

  • Notes that DNA is basically the same in all humans, but subtle variations not only make each of us unique, they also predispose individuals to certain diseases.

  • Explains that in a personal SNP-chip DNA test, scientists look at tiny sections of DNA and synthesize data to show how likely you are to get certain illnesses, such as Alzheimer's and heart disease.

  • Suggests that the "recipes" for certain genetic diseases are complex and include an individual's environment, lifestyle, genetic makeup, and more.

  • Raises the question of whether widespread genetic testing is advisable, given the considerable uncertainty surrounding interpretation of results.

  • Explains that the Personal Genome Project looks at more complete DNA information and aims to sift through the genomes of 100,000 volunteers who have also provided detailed information about their health history, environment, medications, and diet.

  • Considers the concern of genetic discrimination and the common fear of how genetic information could be used against individuals.

  • Concludes that many people feel that the risk of making public their DNA information is worth the potential benefit to humankind.

Taping Rights: Can be used up to one year after the program is taped off the air.

Teacher's Guide
NOVA scienceNOW: Public Genomes
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