Genomics Blog

August 12, 2015 8:19 AM
House Guests, House Pests – a review
Filed Under: Gerry Ward | 0 Comments
In the late 1940s when computers filled the room with blinking lights, noise and lots of heat, one of the duties of the computer operator before running a program was to take off the panels and flush out the moths that had worked their way into the internal workings of the computer. Thus the phrase ‘debugging the computer’ was born. This was just one of many stories told by Richard Jones in his new book House Guests, House Pests: A Natural History of Animals in the Home.
August 27, 2015 5:12 PM
The Cure for Genetic Data's Dark Side
Filed Under: Pam Baker | 0 Comments

A direct-to-consumer genetic testing service called 23andMe came under fire recently because of a DNA profiling app.  While there are many ways to discriminate using genetic information, that’s not the only dark side to genetic data.  Here are three ways genetic data can be abused and steps society, industry, and regulators can take to ensure genetic data is open for good use and closed to abuse. 

The line between good and evil

First, in order to better understand why users don’t understand the dangers in releasing their genetic information to services such as 23andMe, and why regulators are stumped over how to protect consumers from genetic data abuse, consider what went afoul with the 23andMe app. Or rather an app a third-party developer made that uses 23andMe’s genetic data and connects to it via the company’s application program interface (API).

It’s called the Genetic Access Control app and it enables website managers and others to identify website visitors by ethnicity, gender and other parameters. App users could then limit or block “undesirables” from accessing online content. It’s not a huge leap to imagine that this and similar apps could also be used one day to weed undesirables from job applicants, real estate rentals or purchases, and other life sustaining needs.

The predictable backlash to this app was immediate and severe. The public verdict was that this app was undeniably used for evil. 23andMe promptly blocked the app. Evil, it appeared, was swiftly conquered.

But the issue of using genetics to identify users is not that simply labeled or dismissed.

This very same app could be used for good purposes as well. On Github, a Git code repository hosting service, the app developer provides examples of good uses:

1)     Creating "safe spaces" online where frequently attacked and trolled victim groups can congregate, such as a female-only community

2)     Ethnoreligious sects may wish to limit membership, e.g. Hasidic Jewish groups restricting access to Ashkenazi or Sephardic maternal haplogroups with the "Cohen" gene

3)     Safer online dating sites that only partner people with a low likelihood of offspring with two recessive genes for congenital diseases

4)     Pharmaceutical applications that check for genetic predisposition to negative drug interactions before dispensing

5)     Groups defined by ethnic background, e.g. Black Panthers or NAACP members

In the near future, DNA and genetic profiling will be widely used as an identity authenticator. It will be used to verify the identity of hospital patients, especially those who are unable to speak for themselves. It will also likely to be used to verify the identity of bank customers; consumers who use mobile, wearable or online secure payment systems; voters; employees; convicts and their victims; natural and manmade catastrophe victims; and, patients seeking to access their medical information, among other uses.

DNA used as an identifier works for both good and ill; so do the apps that make the genetic identification process possible. It is therefore extremely difficult for regulators and lawmakers to find a definitive line between the good and evil that inherently exists in using genetic information for identification purposes.


August 19, 2015 9:12 AM
Gut Microbiome and Backyard Chickens
Filed Under: Gerry Ward | 0 Comments
I was talking to someone recently about backyard chickens. The topic came up because there was a newspaper article about an increased chance of exposure to Salmonella from handling chickens. It reminded me that early in my teaching career, a fairly large turtle was donated to me for my classroom. My plan to use this turtle to stimulate student interest came to a quick halt when one of my administrators told me that I couldn’t keep the animal in the classroom as it was a source of Salmonella. It also reminded me that at one time the Alberta Science curriculum had a significant unit on ‘Micro-organisms and Food’. Salmonellosis was a topic of much discussion along with staphylococcal food poisoning, giardiasis and shigellosis.
July 30, 2015 3:06 PM
Government of Canada Invests in New Western Canadian Microbiome Centre
Filed Under: News Releases | 0 Comments

Media Release, July 30, 2015. The Honourable Michelle Rempel, Minister of State for Western Economic Diversification, today announced a $9.9 million investment towards the establishment of Canada’s first Western Canadian Microbiome Centre at the University of Calgary. 

July 19, 2015 10:38 AM
What if? – a review
Filed Under: Gerry Ward | 0 Comments
What if there was a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math and language? What if millions of people visited this website each week? What if the dedicated fans asked the comic creator the strangest questions and he applied his skills as a former NASA roboticist to deeply research the answers? And what if a book was created from the most popular answers with new material added for good measure?

What if the book were here already? Well, it is! We have the very popular science book What if? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe based on questions submitted to his xkcd.com website. We can read it cover to cover or we can look at one question at a time and we can do that in a random order.
July 12, 2015 1:37 PM
Gerry’s Gene Scene 21 – recent developments in colorectal cancer
Filed Under: Gerry Ward | 0 Comments

Colorectal cancer is the fourth most common type of cancer in Canada, and, after lung cancer, is the second most common cause of cancer-related death. I found some recent genomics news particularly interesting as it revealed significant developments in colon cancer research.



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