GENETIC PRIVACY: GATTACA REVISITED?
It’s not a formal part of the cruel, terrifying Trumpcare/Ryancare bill Congress is considering to repeal-and-replace Obamacare. But last week a Congressional committee approved another piece of cruel, terrifying medical legislation.
This one would allow your employer to force you to undergo genetic testing, get access to the results, and punish you financially–by thousands of dollars–if you decline to participate. According to Sharon Begley at STAT, if passed, “the bill would free employers’ wellness programs from the existing constraints of the landmark Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act.”
That act, known as GINA, ensures that “employers can’t use genetic information to hire, fire, or promote an employee, or require genetic testing, and health insurers can’t require genetic tests nor use results to deny coverage,” Ricki Lewis explains at her DNA Science Blog.
In addition to weakening the consumer protections built into GINA, the new bill could also be a blow to doing science, Ed Yong declared at The Atlantic. The worry: people are less likely to agree to DNA sequencing if there’s a risk their data can be used against them.
Yong quotes one researcher conducting two big studies designed to find out whether genetics data can guide medical care. The researcher says that nearly half of the potential subjects interested in joining his studies ended up declining because they were worried about insurance discrimination and genetic privacy.
Lewis notes that the American Society for Human Genetics objected to the new bill immediately, arguing that it would permit employers to coerce their employees into providing health and genetic information. Lewis points out also that privacy issues in the new bill extend well beyond an individual employee. That’s because genetic information about one person by definition reveals something about the genes of her or his relatives.
“Also worrisome is that the new mandate reeks of genetic determinism,” she argues. “Genetic information alone does not a diagnosis make.” Very few genes lead inevitably to a specific outcome. Gene activity is modified constantly by outside events (food intake, for example) and the behavior of other genes.
Begley notes that opposition to the bill is mounting. Even the new Trump-appointed Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tom Price, has said that the bill could raise “significant concerns.”
The bill does not appear to be a good deal for the bosses, either. At the Harvard Business Review, Al Lewis walked through some possible benefits of employee genetic testing for employers. He concludes that there aren’t any. For example, one argument in favor of testing, which would cost an estimated $500 per employee, is that knowing they are genetically susceptible to a disease helps employees modify their behavior to reduce their risk. But there’s ample evidence that genetic testing does not alter behavior, he says.
These are cross-border issues too. Canada’s parliament has approved a genetic privacy bill that is opposed by liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government for reasons that remain a bit mystifying. Wayne Kondro describes the situation at Science Insider.
It’s possible the new US bill, which has the unlucky name HR 1313, might attract opposition from unusual sources. That includes venues not often interested in topics involving somewhat arcane technical issues. Case in point: Jillian Kramer’s post at Glamour magazine.
And Emma Stefansky’s post at Vanity Fair links the new legislation to the cult-favorite movie Gattaca. Gattaca, you may recall, is about a eugenics future where a man with bad genes impersonates one with better genes in order to qualify for the job he wants.
HAPPY ST. PATRICK’S DAY. KISS ME, I’M NEANDERTHAL
This is the perfect science journalism topic. It has everything, especially everything that will get your editor to snap to attention and probably get you a prominent place on the page.
It has not just sex, but kinky sex, and sex that in some (nonpaleoanthropological) quarters would be defined as bestiality. At the same time it’s about super-serious research, research that a world-class expert in the same field has called “amazing science.” A salacious eyeball-grabber, guaranteed, but arrayed as oh-so-respectable academic discourse, as sober scientific disputation.
So there’s this Nature paper warmly embraced by media. It describes DNA analyses of the rock-hard calculus still clinging to the teeth of Neandertal skeletons from Belgium (about 39,000 years old) and Spain (about 48,000 years old.) Calculus was formerly the squishy dental plaque that today we’re supposed to floss away, and it’s full of food particles and residents of our oral microbiomes.
Despite its great age, the Neandertal calculus revealed DNA from specific microbes and some food. First author Laura Weyrich, of the University of Adelaide, told Sarah Kaplan at Speaking of Science that the microbes she and her colleagues uncovered are the first for Neanderthals and the oldest ever analyzed.
The paper emphasized what the study showed about about diet and possible ancient medical practices. The Belgians had eaten woolly rhinoceros, wild sheep, and some edible mushrooms. The Spaniards’ food remnants were entirely vegetarian: mushrooms, pine nuts, tree bark, and moss.
That might suggest that the Belgians were hunters and the Spaniards exclusively foragers. But a German paleobiologist told Ewen Callaway at Nature News that other evidence suggests both groups ate meat.
“When people talk about the Paleo diet, that’s not paleo, that’s just non-carb,” Weyrich told Ed Yong at the Atlantic. “The true paleo diet is eating whatever’s out there in the environment.”
One of the Spanish Neandertals, a teenager, had a tooth abscess and was infected with Enterocytozoon bieneusi, a parasite that causes diarrhea. In his dental plaque the researchers found both poplar bark, source of salicylic acid, the pain-relieving ingredient in aspirin, and also Penicillium, the mold the antibiotic penicillin is derived from.
The Penicillium was found only in the teenager, so it’s tempting to assume these people had medical skills. “They might have had some knowledge that mouldy grains could help them when they were sick – we just don’t really know,” Weyrich told Colin Barras at New Scientist.
NEANDERTALS: KISSING COUSINS?
But the most salient point for journalists was not what the paper said about food and possible medicine in Neandertal communities. It was what Weyrich speculated about in interviews. That speculation was also fueled by DNA, this from Methanobrevibacter oralis, a ubiquitous inhabitant of the human mouth. (Despite the name, it’s a methane-generating member of the Archaea, not a bacterium, and is probably involved in gum disease.)
By studying mutation differences between Neandertal M. oralis and an M. oralis found in today’s humans, the researchers estimated that Neandertal M. oralis diverged from Homo sap M. oralis about 120,000 years ago. That’s close to the earliest time scientists believe we were breeding with Neandertals–and, it would appear, swapping spit with them.
In short, kissing. Weyrich thinks this suggests intimate consensual relationships between Neandertals and modern humans, not coercion and rape.
ON THE OTHER HAND–
There are several ways M. oralis can get into a mouth. One scientist suggested to Barras at New Scientist that the two groups might have drunk water from the same stream or salvaged food from each other.
And although he loved the science in the paper (“an incredible tour de force of both lab and computational work. Kudos to all involved.”), the very high-profile microbiologist Jonathan Eisen tore into reports of Weyrich’s amorous speculations in a long post at his blog The Tree of Life. He also made a Storify of the Twitter discussion, available here.
Eisen declared, “the media has run with what I believe to be an inaccurate representation of the science.”
As Eisen pointed out, “it is really hard to prove from microbiome data that two people have been kissing even when we have high quality data from many samples and even when we have data from both the possible donor and recipient. So how could one show that humans and Neanderthals were kissing with data from ancient samples and only from one of the partners in the putative exchange?” (Hint: Can’t be done.)
He’s dubious, too, about the dating of divergence between Neandertal and Homo sap M. oralis, such dates being “generally highly debated and [it is] unclear how accurate they are.”
Eisen also points out that the contemporary M. oralis genome the researchers used for comparison is actually not an oral sample at all. It came from human feces.
Ahem. I suppose we should be thankful that the journos didn’t run with that one.
But Eisen is not squeamish about the implications. “[W]hat is to suggest that this was do due to kissing? Nothing as far as I can tell. How about sharing utensils? How about contact with fecal contaminated water (since M. oralis seems to do OK in feces)? Or I guess would could go extreme and say this could be evidence for oral anal contact between Neanderthal and humans, if we wanted to sensationalize this even more.”
Flávio S J de Souza tweeted: “scatological palaeoporn, a new branch for science.”
Eisen suggests sticking to the evidence and acknowledging that kissing is just one possibility–and that even so the evidence for it is tenuous. He’s also concerned about the longer-term effects on his area of study. “If the claims are as premature as they seem to be, this is damaging in my mind to the field of microbiome science.”