Welcome to the DNA world
The recent capture, more than four decades on, of the so-called Golden State killer, believed to have murdered at least 12 people, raped more than 50 women and carried out more 100 robberies between 1976 and 1986, has triggered speculation about a society in which growing numbers of people’s genetic mapping is available on web sites, typically in relation to health or genealogy.
Police identified the serial killer after they obtained a genetic profile of a DNA sample collected at the scene of one of his crimes and uploaded it to a genealogy web site, and after searching among more than a million samples, found profiles that pointed to people with some family ties with the suspect. From there, traditional police work led detectives to the man, finally closing a case that had spread panic in the San Francisco area for more than a decade.
The technique police used is not particularly sophisticated: as a result of my profile at 23andMe, I occasionally receive messages about people who might be related to me and that I don’t follow up on, but keep out of curiosity. I signed up for the service around five years ago because I was interest in health data it then provided, but that the company was forced to stop providing such data by the FDA, fearful of the so-called Angelina Jolie effect (in 2013, the actress underwent a double mastectomy based on the diagnosis of a genetic test). Since then, 23andMe has been trying to get approval for the tests it carries out to detect genetic markers of certain diseases and conditions, but fundamentally is now used by people to find out about the geographic origins of their gene pool, how much Neanderthal DNA they might have, or to participate in extensive research in all kinds of areas.
What happens when it’s not just the police that create genetic databases, but the general public, interested in their health or genealogy? There was a sharp rise in demand for this type of testing following the Jolie case: in 2017 more people had a genetic test than in all the previous years combined. As things stand, a DNA paternity test in the United States costs around $100 and can be bought on Amazon or in many supermarkets, perhaps taking us toward a world like that depicted in the 1997 movie Gattaca.
Health is a powerful incentive: there are any number of people willing to undergo testing, particularly when they are as simple as providing a saliva sample or an oral swab. Similarly, we seem endlessly fascinated about who we are and where we come from, particularly in the case of groups whose identity is based on certain unique characteristics, such as the Ashkenazi Jews.
In the near future, health care will increasingly be preventive and use our DNA to identify possible issues, with all our genetic data collected in databases where we can only hope it is suitably protected and put to good use.
The case of the Golden State killer takes us a step closer to such a reality. The consequences can only be imagined.