Forecasts of genetic fate just got a lot more accurate

DNA-based scores are getting better at predicting intelligence, risks for common diseases, and more. 
  • by Antonio Regalado
  • February 21, 2018
  • hen Amit Khera explains how he predicts disease, the young cardiologist’s hands touch the air, arranging imaginary columns of people: 30,000 who have suffered heart attacks here, 100,000 healthy controls there.
    There’s never been data available on as many people’s genes as there is today. And that wealth of information is allowing researchers to guess at any person’s chance of getting common diseases like diabetes, arthritis, clogged arteries, and depression.
    Doctors already test for rare, deadly mutations in individual genes. Think of the BRCA breast cancer gene. Or the one-letter mutation that causes sickle-cell anemia. But such one-to-one connections between a mutation and a disease—“the gene for X”—aren’t seen in most common ailments. Instead, these have complex causes, which until recently have remained elusive....

    A DNA IQ test

    In addition to predicting disease, geneticists can build models to predict any human trait that can be measured, including behaviors. Is this person destined for a life of crime and recidivism? Will that one be neurotic, depressed, or smarter than average?
    The scoring technology, scientists say, will soon shed uncomfortable light on such questions. In January, two leading psychologists argued that direct-to-consumer DNA IQ tests will soon become “routinely available” and will predict children’s ability “to learn, reason, and solve problems.” They believe parents will test toddlers and use the results to make school plans.
    To some, using foggy genetic horoscopes to decide who goes to college and who ends up in trade school sounds like an extraordinarily bad idea. On his blog Gloomy Prospect, Eric Turkheimer, a prominent psychologist at the University of Virginia, says the danger is that the scores will be overinterpreted to “recommend some truly dreadful social policies.” That, he thinks, would be “the worst possible kind of biologically determinist discrimination.” To Turkheimer, polygenic scores are “less than meets the eye” and about as fair as “predicting your IQ from a cousin you haven’t met.”
    Such views aren’t stopping the rapid pace of genetic exploration. Until last year, no gene variant had ever been tied directly to IQ test results. Since then, studies involving more than 300,000 people’s DNA have linked 206 variants to intelligence. It means genetic scores can now account for 10 percent of a person’s performance on an IQ test. That could reach 25 percent within a few years, as more data accumulates. One US company, Genomic Prediction, even says it wants to test IVF embryos for intelligence, so parents can discard those expected to be mentally unfit.
    Dystopia, dubious medicine, or a breakthrough in prevention? Genomic prediction may well be all three. What is clear is that, with the data needed to create predictors becoming freely available online, 2018 will be a breakout year for DNA fortune-telling.

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