The University of California at Berkeley has long been considered one of the top public research universities in the United States, and the school has been making headlines in recent months for an experiment that will be the first of its kind. Berkeley will ask each member of the class of 2014 to participate in voluntary DNA testing. Yes, you read that correctly – incoming freshmen will each be given a cotton swab on which they can send in a DNA sample if they choose to do so.
The goal of the Berkeley experiment is to help their students lead healthier lives. The DNA will be tested for alcohol and lactose intolerance. Testing will be done anonymously and students will able to access their test results online based upon the unique bar code students received when submitting their cotton swab.
According to a May 18, 2010 New York Times article, Jasper Rine, the professor of genetics who is leading the project, said the program was designed to help students learn about personalized medicine and identify their own vulnerabilities. “The history of medical genetics has been the history of finding bad things,” he said. “But in the future, I think nutritional genomics is probably going to be the sweet spot.”
Rival school Stanford announced on June 7, 2010 that a summer course at the Stanford University School of Medicine will give medical and graduate students the opportunity to study their own personal genotype data summer if they participate in the elective Genetics 210: Genomics and Personalized Medicine. The students will then learn how to analyze, evaluate, and interpret their own genetic data. However, Berkeley’s program for the class of 2014 will be the first mass genetic testing by a university—Stanford’s summer course is limited to upper level students.
Genetic testing has always been controversial, and people are asking Berkeley to do away with the program. Critics claim that this type of specialized testing should be carried out by specialists instead of a university. Most young people – the seventeen and eighteen –year-olds who will be college freshmen this fall – have utmost respect for their new school, and will probably participate in the “voluntary” DNA testing simply because the university asked them to.
Mark Schlissel, dean of biology at Berkeley, has stated that “In the decade ahead, the new genetics is going to penetrate everyday medical practice. We wanted to give students a sense of what’s coming, through genes that can provide them with useful information. I think it’s one of the best things we’ve done in years.”
That sounds impressive, but what is going to happen should the genetic testing find abnormalities or problems? The director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, feels that this mass DNA testing should not occur without some type of counseling program available. He told the New York Times, “I’d rather people get their results in a medical setting, where they can ask questions about the error rate or the chances of passing it on to their children, and not just see it posted on some Web site.”
Berkeley’s argument? The school is simply looking for potential problems with alcohol, lactose, and folates, as opposed to serious genetic mutations.
What do you think about all of this?
Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.
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