23andMe introduced an API today to let the curious among us tap into their database:
“Opening our API offers an immense opportunity for customers to do more with their DNA. While 23andMe has created a number of groundbreaking and innovative tools for our customer to explore their DNA, the API will open the door to the possibility of new web-based interactive tools to be developed by external groups.”
This is a gigantic step forward in opening up access for genetics research online. The beauty of machine learning (as discussed in a previous post) is that it’s agnostic when it comes to information sources; it’s up to humans to interpret whether the results are useful. We know from prior research that a number of diseases are strongly heritable; a person’s DNA is a near perfect predictor of a diagnosis. But while genetics alone can predict Down Syndrome, research into more complex partially inherited traits has been far less common.
What we do know is that illnesses such as psychopathology are partially heritable, and technology can help improve the ability of science to isolate the genetics that play a major role. Throughout history, problems considered too complex have often been solved when bright people use new technology to determine the source of an underlying problem.
While it’s primitive by today’s standards, Dr. John Snow’s mapping of cholera victims in the 1850s discovered a pattern critical to eliminating the source of the illness. In this case, Snow wasn’t actually studying the disease itself; he was simply looking for a pattern. In fact, even when he discovered it, the science available was insufficient to immediately prove him correct.
Snow wasn’t actually studying the disease itself; he was simply looking for a pattern.
The analogy is clear, powerful, and frightening. We don’t know what kind of patterns smart people will find in our DNA. 23andMe already advertises the ability to predict blood type. We’re entering a world where a parent or potential spouse can run a genetic background check. The ethical debate surrounding that level of foreknowledge is only just beginning.