The next 25 years

He predicts that our fascination with tracing these kinds of family roots is likely to emerge as a key application of the new gene technology – a kind of “Genes Reunited”. The current Holy Grail of geneticists is to churn out the human genome sequence for $1,000, and the price is bound to fall even further. Once anyone can pop down the high street to Genes R Us, have a quick mouth swab, and pick up their sequence for a few hundred pounds, what will they do with it? Jeffreys suggests that they will use it to identify others whose genome shows similar patterns of DNA, and therefore must be closely related. And they won’t just be able to identify their contemporary relatives. In theory, if you had the total genome sequence of everybody in Britain you could go some way towards constructing the complete genealogy of the UK going back hundreds of years.

This is an application likely to prove much more appealing to an individual – and therefore more potentially lucrative to business – than using a genome sequence to assess the risk of contracting various diseases, Jeffreys argues, especially when the genome can only usually give estimates of disease risk rather than a precise medical read-out. In any case, everyone carries the equivalent of three lethal genes tucked away in their genome and most will be able to do nothing about them, so what is the point of knowing what they are?

This is not to dismiss the likely future impact of genetics on medicine. Over the next 25 years, Jeffreys says, a much more detailed catalogue of genetic variants and their ability to combat diseases will become available. Huge steps have already been made in identifying genes that affect diseases such as Type 2 diabetes, schizophrenia and manic depression, but over the next few years further progress is expected in discovering how genes work not just individually but with each other, and with the environment, to cause and combat disease. Scientists are also beginning to understand more about how genes affect stature, eye colour and other ways unconnected with disease in which individuals differ from each other.

Meanwhile, with publication of the full draft sequence of a Neanderthal expected later this year, genetics is likely to play an important part in improving our understanding of some of the important prehistorical events of human evolution, says Jeffreys. Perhaps we will be able to find out more about what differentiates humans and Neanderthals, or go even further back and look at the DNA of so-called Hobbit man. Work is already being done on the genome sequence of the woolly mammoth.

But will we be able to reconstruct prehistoric creatures from their DNA in the next 25 years? No, says Jeffreys. The analogy is simple. “If I took your hard drive out of your computer, ground it to a fine dust then gave it back to you and told you to build out of it a functioning computer, from that information, you couldn’t do it.” DNA is not a blueprint, he says. “It’s a machine code that operates in an environment that allows that machine code to be read.”

He is worried by people who believe in genetic pre-determinism, “that we are just lumbering gene robots, that we are essentially what our genes tell us to be”. That’s just plain nonsense, he says. “Environment is by far the most dominant factor.” While there is a genetic component in obesity that is worth exploring, the primary driver is junk food, supermarkets, over-eating and under-exercising. “It really worries me that perhaps a person who is obese is going to say, ‘well  I’m not going to do anything about this. It’s my genes’ – nothing is further from the truth.”

One of Jeffreys’ more controversial predictions is that at least one country in the world will soon introduce a DNA database of its entire population. He has spoken out about the UK’s police database holding DNA profiles of innocent people on the grounds that it only covers those who happen to have been stopped by police. But he is more ambiguous about the idea of a universal database run independently from the police and able to identify bodies from mass disasters such as the Asian Tsunami, or even regular traffic accidents. He proposes that this database should hold not DNA profiles but DNA pins derived from scrunching down DNA profile information. This would create merely an identity number and remove information on personal traits or family relationships. If police wanted access to this database they would need a court order. “I’m not saying we should even go down this road,” he says. “I’m saying this is a road that has not been properly discussed.”

Jeffreys says any predictions he makes about the next 25 years inevitably have to be about technological developments rather than scientific discoveries because the joy of science is its unpredictability. This is perhaps why the discovery he would be most excited to see in the next 25 years does not involve anything to do with his own research. “No-brainer,” he says. “Extra-terrestrial life. I would love to see that before I die.”

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