adam lanza

Genetic testing of Newtown shooter will provide few answers

It’s difficult to contemplate what could drive a young man to kill 20 schoolchildren, six teachers, his own mother, and himself. Adam Lanza, the Newtown killer, left few clues as to why he committed these unspeakable acts. Perhaps out of desperation to find an answer—any answer—scientists at the University of Connecticut will search for clues within Lanza’s genome. They’ll seek out genes and mutations that may make a person prone to mental illness and/or violence, with an aim towards preventing such horrifying events from happening in the future. New York Times reporter Gina Kolata points out that this is the first time researchers will attempt a detailed study of a mass killer’s DNA, and it’s likely to ignite a storm of scientific and ethical controversy. 

Twin studies have shown that there is a heritable component to violent and antisocial behaviors. While the Connecticut researchers are unlikely to find any single “mass murder” gene, it is possible that dozens of genes contribute to aggressive behavior. The effect of those genes would be mediated by environmental factors such as upbringing, education and the use of drugs and alcohol.  

If scientists discover abnormalities in Lanza’s genome, those results will be controversial and highly speculative at best. Correlation does not prove causation, and a sample size of exactly one person—while it may provide leads for future research— will not uncover a clear genetic predisposition for violence. PZ Myers, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Minnesota Morris, argues that we do not know enough about the genome to make sense of such abnormalities.

I can predict exactly what will be found when they look at Adam Lanza’s DNA. It will be human. There will be tens of thousands of little nucleotide variations from reference standards scattered throughout the genome, because all of us carry these kinds of differences. The scientists will have no idea what 99% of the differences do. They will make dubious associations — for example, they might find a novel nucleotide in a gene that has other variants correlated with schizophrenia — and in the absence of any causal link at all, they’ll publish garbage papers that try to impute a signal to common genetic noise. Some idiot will make noise about screening for an obscure mutation that Lanza carried, just because it’s something different.

With only a rudimentary understanding of the genome, Myers suggests, fishing through Lanza’s genome can only open the door to misconceptions and ethical abuses.

The quest to pin down the biology of criminal behavior has had a dubious history. Before World War II, the belief that criminality was heritable led to forced sterilization of convicts.  In the 1960s, flimsy evidence that males with an extra Y chromosome were more prone to violence led to genetic screening in prisons. The presence of the so-called “criminal chromosome” caused some parents to abort their XYY fetuses. The extra chromosome’s alleged link with violence was later debunked, but the idea of the XYY “supermale” lives on in popular culture.

Then along came “the warrior gene.” In the 1990s, scientists linked the low expression of MAOA—a gene that encodes for the enzyme monoamine oxidase A—with extreme violence in a Dutch family. But the results couldn’t be extrapolated into the general population. Studies in recent years have made unconvincing claims over small differences in aggression between people with low and normal levels of MAOA. It’s a racially charged controversy: African American males are ten times more likely than white males to carry the low-MAOA gene, and white supremacists have seized on this fact to argue that blacks are innately more violent than whites—even though the evidence isn’t there.

What would we do if scientists do find genes or mutations associated with Lanza-like violence? Neuroscientist Steven Hyman, from the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, told the New York Times it won’t make a difference in terms of prevention. “The idea of screening with a view of preventing those kinds of incidents is basically unthinkable,” he said. Required screening for aggression-related genes would infringe on personal liberties and no doubt lead to discrimination.

Should people whose genes make them predisposed to violence be restricted from owning a gun, even if they don’t have a violent background? Should they be required to seek psychiatric counseling? At The Daily Beast, Kent Sepkowitz writes,

We screen many fetuses for Down syndrome—would we want to add the screen for the mass-murder gene? Genetics as a field has struggled to keep up with the accompanying ethical quandaries its scientific pursuit has created: for example, whether to test for the Huntington’s disease gene or the BRCA gene that may predispose to cancer of the breast. Plus, what if insurance companies began to use the information to select good-risk genetic stock only, passing over those with too many scrambled genetic elements?

Perhaps Hyman and Sepkowitz are too harsh. Although it may not be possible to use genetic screening to prevent another Newtown or Aurora massacre, the research could be useful for developing therapies for people with these genetic predispositions, to help them achieve emotional and mental stability. Presumably that would make the world a safer place.

Lanza’s DNA cannot provide the immediate explanation that the public would like in order to understand his terrible crimes. If his genetic makeup holds clues to the root of extreme violence, it may take years to find them and to properly characterize their impacts. Working through the concomitant ethical issues will take even longer.

Regardless of what the Connecticut geneticists may find, the hubbub surrounding Lanza’s genetic testing should not be a distraction from a more immediate issue, which is that mental health care is often not available to those who need it most, writes IO9’s George Dvorsky. “We already know how to diagnose and treat many of the psychoses surrounding acts of violence — psychologists don’t need a genetic analysis to tell them that. The problem is that there’s very little being done to identify and treat these potentially dangerous individuals.”

Gene technology innovations reshaping future of medicine

The ability to map human DNA cheaply and quickly is yielding a torrent of data about the genetic drivers of disease—and a steady stream of patients who are benefiting from the knowledge. Technology is putting more power in the hands of patients, and researchers are learning to combat disorders by harnessing the body’s ability to heal and grow.

View the original article here: The Future of Medicine Is Now

U.S. Clears DNA Firm’s Acquisition by Chinese

The federal government has given national security clearance to the controversial purchase of an American DNA sequencing company by a Chinese firm.

The federal government has given national security clearance to the controversial purchase of an American DNA sequencing company by a Chinese firm.

The Chinese firm, BGI-Shenzhen, said in a statement this weekend that its acquisition of Complete Genomics, based in Mountain View, Calif., had been cleared by the federal Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, which reviews the national security implications of foreign takeovers of American companies. The deal still requires antitrust clearance by the Federal Trade Commission.

Some scientists, politicians and industry executives had said the takeover represented a threat to American competitiveness in DNA sequencing, a technology that is becoming crucial for the development of drugs, diagnostics and improved crops.

View the original article here: U.S. Clears DNA Firm’s Acquisition by Chinese

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Can genetic testing help prevent the next mass murder?

Can DNA explain why Adam Lanza and James Holmes both went on shooting rampages?

Some geneticists at the University of Connecticut think so. Backed by a public mandate to look at mental health in the wake of 2012’s rampant shootings, the researchers hope to discover whether there was something unusual about Sandy Hook Elementary School rampage killer Adam Lanza’s DNA. Lanza, who killed 20 children and six staff in an assault on the school, will have his genetic material screened to determine whether aberrant genetic factors such as DNA duplications or deletions or random mutations could have affected his behavior.

Are these efforts going to help prevent the next Newtown or Aurora? No way to tell for sure, but unlikely.

View the original article here: James Holmes and Adam Lanza: Their DNA May Hold Clues On What Makes a Mass Shooter

salmon on ice

President’s Science Commitment, FDA Face Scrutiny in Wake of GMO Salmon Fiasco

The Genetic Literacy Project’s investigation of White House interference in the approval process for genetically modified salmon continues to boil.

The saga began on December 19, when Slate published an article written by the GLP which laid out how and why the review of the first transgenic animal for human consumption—an Atlantic salmon modified with a growth hormone gene from Chinook salmon so it grows to maturity faster—had taken 17 years to make its way through the federal approval process. Two years ago, the Food and Drug Administration finally said it was going to release its environmental assessment, the last major step in the approval process, within weeks.

It was finally and quietly posted on the FDA’s website only December 21—two days after the GLP’s article rattled through the offices of the agency and the White House. The GLP had reported that the FDA had definitively concluded last April that the fish would have “no significant impact” on the environment and was “as safe as food from conventional Atlantic salmon.” However, the draft assessment was not released—blocked on orders from the Executive Office.

As the GLP summarized in a follow-up article in Forbes, the seven-month delay originated late last spring after discussions between Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sibelius’ office and officials linked to Valerie Jarrett at the White House, who were debating the political implications of approving the GM salmon. Genetically modified plants and animals are controversial among the president’s political base, which was thought critical to his reelection efforts during a low point in the president’s popularity.

Within hours after the posting of the Slate article and a leaked copy of the draft environment assessment approved in April (posted on the GLP site), an administration official notified the FDA that the hold had been dropped. “The White House had no place to hide,” a government source told the GLP.

According to sources, the White House political block—a direct violation of numerous ethics regulations and possibly of federal laws—was instituted over the objections of scientists at the FDA, but with the awareness of HHS Secretary Sibelius, her senior adviser Andrea Palm and the Office of Science and Technology Policy and its director John Holdren, who is responsible for enforcing “scientific integrity” across government agencies. According to sources, Holdren stood by as the White House openly meddled.

Both the Slate and Forbes stories received wide coverage, particularly on legal, political and science blogs, reinforcing general disgust with a scientific review process that dragged on almost indefinitely, extended by politics and the histrionics generated by anti-GMO NGOs.

“Everyone who believes in sound science should be troubled by this  [political interference],” wrote Emily Anthes in her Wonderland blog at PLOS. Keith Kloor also highlighted the political sclerosis surrounding GMOs in his Collide-a-Scape blog at Discover.

Rosie Mestel with the Los Angeles Times wrote a great piece deconstructing the delay, quoting extensively from our Slate exposé, even noting the ethical and legal complications the White House and other government officials may face.

Over at Psychology Today, David Ropeik mused about the White House intervention and how “emotionally controversial risk issue[s] [can interfere] with the objective consideration of science.” He also offered a nice analysis of the psychological mechanisms that underlie the often-irrational reactions to genetically modified animals and plants by activists with a poor grasp of risk perception.

Paul Raeburn at Knight Science Journalism Tracker, who has made a point of highlighting the Bush Administration’s multiple subversions of science integrity dropped the ball on this one, making it seem as if the delay originated at the FDA, when it was a White House operation from beginning to end. Everyone but Raeburn seemed to recognize this for what it was—a fiasco that raises questions about the commitment of the president to an independent scientific review process and the ability willingness of the OSTP and John Holdren to stand up to political intimidation.

Other articles:

 

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New Mexico considers GMO labeling amendment

The push for mandatory GMO labeling may have taken a sucker punch in California, but the debate over genetically modified foods is still simmering. New Mexico state senator Peter Wirth (D-Santa Fe) has filed an amendment to the state’s food act to require the labeling of genetically modified food ingredients. Working with the NGO, Food & Water Watch, Wirth drafted the amendment, SB 18, to require that foods sold in New Mexico be labeled if they contain more than one percent of genetically modified food ingredients.

View the original article here: A GMO-Free New Mexico? Land of Enchantment to Debate Labeling

GM salmon could hurt Alaska’s commercial fishermen

Kenai River angler Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, was railing against “Frankenfish” again on Friday after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave a green flag to long-running efforts to produce bigger, faster-growing, genetically modified salmon. Murkowski, backed by Alaska fishing organizations, has repeatedly tried to stop such approval by tying the agency up in red tape.

She previously tried, but failed, to get the Senate to require the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) be intimately involved in the process. She said again and again she thought a more thorough scientific review of the biotechnology was in order. But she sort of let slip on Friday that the demand for better science was really more of a smokescreen for efforts to simply kill the idea.

View the original article here: Feds pronounce genetically modified salmon OK; Murkowski says balderdash

Genetics’ effect on intelligence and society

Fewer subjects are more controversial than the study of genetics and its relation to just about every facet of human aptitude.

The debate over whether genes or memes drive our intelligence has been raging in the scientific community for decades on end. Unsurprisingly, this has boiled over into politics as well. Today, one can be labeled by ideologues on the left and the right alike for simply presenting the opinion that genetics play no small role in life achievement.

Steve Sailer is one of the few journalists who regularly writes about the relationship between intelligence and society. That, of course, has earned him no shortage of accolades and detractions. He and I discussed the essential aspects of the aforementioned relationship. 

View the original article here: Steve Sailer discusses genetics’ effect on intelligence and society

The curious genetics of “werewolves”

Forgive my lapse in political correctness, but I recalled those cards when I saw the word “hypertrichosis” in a recent paper in PLOS Genetics , because, unfortunately, the condition is also known historically as “werewolf syndrome.”

In the paper, geneticist Angela Christiano, PhD, and colleagues at Columbia University analyzed the genomes of a father and son with Ambras syndrome, a form of hypertrichosis – and found something intriguing about the causative mutation that has repercussions for genetic testing in general.

View the original article here: The Curious Genetics of Werewolves

Genome of Chinese plum provides hope of improved fruit

A Chinese research team, led by Beijing Forestry University, BGI, Beijing Lin Fu Ke Yuan Flowers Co., Ltd, and other institutes, has completed the first genomic sequence of Prunus mume, known as mei.

Wenbin Chen, Project Manager of BGI, said, “The P. mumegenome lays a solid foundation for identification of important economic traits, and provides a valuable resource for P. mumebreeding and other Rosaceae species studies. The work here also brings a new approach for further exploring the biosynthesis of floral scent and regulation mechanism of early blooming in endodormancy, and other comparative genomics studies on Rosaceae species.”

View the original article here: First Genome Sequence of Chinese Plum Provides Important Resource for Fruit Improvement

Anti-GMO movement should follow the money instead of wasting its time on labels

Over the past several years I have spent a great deal of time in high-security, limited-access genetic modification laboratories. While researching my latest book, I peered at glow-in-the-dark grapes (their seeds spiked with jellyfish genes), inspected attempts to create square tomatoes (a yet-to-be-decoded DNA sequence may dictate the shape of all fruit), and marveled at rice plants engineered to be immune to Asia’s deadliest rice blight. None of the GMO cornucopia I ogled is commercially available—yet. But even if these laboratory specimens never make it to the shelves, about 70 percent of processed foods in U.S. supermarkets already contain genetically modified ingredients.

Should you be concerned about the healthfulness of such foods? This question monopolized a good deal of the recent diatribes deployed in the lead-up to last month’s vote on California’s Proposition 37, which would have mandated labeling on GM foods.

But this is the wrong question.

Here’s why: GM foods’ effect on health is uncertain, but their effect on farmers, scientists, and the marketplace is clear. Some GM foods may be healthy, others not; every genetic modification is different. But every GM food becomes dangerous—not to health, but to society—when it can be patented. Right now, the driving force behind the development of new genetic crop modifications is the fact that they possess the potential to be enormously profitable, and the source of those potential profits is a seemingly innocuous bit of legal code:

Whoever invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof, may obtain a patent therefor.

View the original article here: Genetically Monetized Food

Patents and trademarks: My plants broke the law

The intricacies of plant patenting came home for me this past year with a shipment of strawberry plants.

Strawberry plants send out runners, thin stems on the ends of which new plants form, which themselves take root and bear fruits and send out more runners. Those daughter plants forming at the ends of runners are useful for filling in a strawberry bed as well as for transplanting elsewhere to make a new bed.

But these particular plants that I bought last spring were a patented variety (Chandler). So transplanting those daughter plants would constitute a crime.

View the original article here: Patents and trademarks: My plants broke the law

Identifying genetic markers will not stop crime

Discussion turned, in the wake of the Newtown killings, to better mental health services. If we could simply identify homicidal rage before it erupted, we could save lives. Don’t advances in biology and neurosciences permit us, finally, to say with some degree of certainty, just what we are and why we do the things we do?

Not by a long shot. Although we are on the cusp of a potentially transforming understanding of the relationship between minds and bodies, we’re hardly better off than we were in Plato’s day when it comes to understanding what makes the human psyche tick.

It all starts with the mysterious relationship between minds and bodies. We’ve decoded the genome, the sum of our genetic parts. Today, scientists are busily decoding the genetic structure of Adam Lanza. Will a quirky mutation, or an unusual sequence in genes, explain why he snapped and killed 27 people, including 20 children, in Newtown? Is there a mass murderer gene?

I doubt it, and, even if there were, finding it would prove a useless tool.

Read the original article here: Identifying genetic markers will not stop crime

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DNA tests target Native Americans

The Center for Genetics and Society, which takes an ultra-conservative view of genetic screening and genetic technology, takes a one-sided look at DNA tests marketed to Native Americans. Rather than seeing DNA tests as one tool in the identity tool box, as reasonable people do, it selectively quotes critics, and critics only, of benign DNA ancestral tests that provide clues to our origins.

View the original article here: DNA Ancestry Testing: What Can it Say about Native American Identity?