Is There a Genie in the Genome?

I have long sounded an alarm about the potential "dark side" to the otherwise glowing promise of genomics: counting on genes, to account for what ails us, may cause us to dither while waiting for answers we don't yet have, and squander those we do, along with the clear and present opportunities to promote health through better living those answers provide.

How nature might one day hone the cutting edge of biomedical advance, in other words, might blunt our application of nurture. The lens through which I view the world does, indeed, show exactly that view -- and has for quite some time.

But while my 'dark' view of genomics was limited to the threats of distraction and delay, a report just published by the Bioscience Resource Project goes considerably further. Their dark view -- which is predicated on the concession by premier geneticists that if there are genes that meaningfully account for common diseases, they are hiding in the dark matter of our DNA, whatever that is -- suggests that genomics is one part boondoggle, one part conspiracy by the military-industrial establishment.

What you should make of this truly dark view of dark DNA, I leave to your own judgment. I merely suggest for now that you read the report and reflect accordingly.

My own hope for genomic advances lingers, I confess. But at its best, that hope was and is a small flicker in comparison to the luminous promise of lifestyle. As I have noted before, feet, forks and fingers are the master levers of medical destiny and can rewrite our fate at the very level of whatever genes we harbor. Avoiding tobacco, eating well and being active could, by themselves and across a backdrop of genetic variation, eliminate something close to 80 percent of all chronic, degenerative disease. No Nobel Prize ever conferred -- in genetics or any other field -- was for an advance of this potential scope and impact.

It remains to be seen what promises genomic medicine will keep. It remains to be seen what insights might illuminate the dark matter of our DNA, if it exists. It remains to be seen if there is a genie of great power in our genome. It remains to be seen what we can do if genetic nature becomes malleable to us.

But the stunning power of nurture is a bird in hand. It is at your disposal right now. It only remains to be put to good use.