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DNA Dreams

Posted by Jessica Cussins on April 9th, 2014

The documentary film DNA Dreams is now available in full on YouTube. You can also watch an interesting interview with the Dutch filmmaker Bregtje van der Haak here.

The film provides an unparalleled view into the inner workings of BGI Shenzhen, “the world’s largest genomics organization” that is, among other things, engaged in a controversial project to “uncover” the genetic basis of intelligence. The film is full of candid conversations with the researchers involved about their visions for the technologies under development.

For more information on this fascinating documentary, see this review.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Update on Controversial Police DNA Collection in the States

Posted by Pete Shanks on April 3rd, 2014

A map of the US
States in blue currently allow
DNA to be taken upon arrest

California's Proposition 69, which was passed in 2004, expanded the police right to collect and store DNA data. Perhaps most controversially, Prop 69 required the collection of samples from anyone arrested for a felony, which can then be kept in the database even if the arrestee is never convicted of a crime. The ACLU has been challenging this all along, as unconstitutional, and will continue to press its lawsuit despite a setback on March 20.

The California case was put on hold when the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to consider a similar but not identical Maryland law, which it eventually upheld. That ruling was narrow, and referred to "serious crimes." On that basis, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco unanimously declined to declare the collection of DNA upon arrest to be absolutely unconstitutional [pdf]. However, the ruling also suggested that there could be a distinction between "serious crimes" and "all felonies" which a lower court might consider. Judge Milan D. Smith vehemently disagreed on this point with the other ten justices, and filed a separate concurrence asserting, "This case is over."

There's an analysis of the March decision by Jennifer Wagner at Genomics Law Report and by Hank Greely at the Stanford Law and Biosciences Blog (with links to more background). Wagner suggests that legislative remedies are more likely to constrain the collection of DNA than judicial ones, and notes that efforts to provide them are underway in Sacramento. Greely thinks there may be a viable distinction between "serious crimes" and "all felonies" but is understandably reluctant to predict how future courts might rule.

Similar controversies are brewing in other states, with several recent developments. Oklahoma now seems to be reluctant to take DNA upon arrest, but Georgia will probably decide to do so. Wisconsin is fine-tuning its legislation. Overall, according to Forensic Magazine, 27 states were collecting DNA samples upon arrest in February, at least in some circumstances.

The National Conference of State Legislatures' (NCSL) DNA Laws Database shows a slightly lower number, but seems to be a little out of date, as is this September 2012 article from the Department of Justice. The NCSL's remains the most convenient searchable database. It allows searches by state and various categories, including "collection of DNA samples from arrestees," that return summaries of the relevant state law as well as the statute number.

The implementation of forensic DNA databases continues to raise concerns about civil liberties, privacy and racial justice in countries around the world. Ireland is set to establish a system shortly, and South Africa is expanding DNA collection. The patchwork of laws in the United States seems likely to remain in flux for some years to come. There may still be a possibility of establishing safeguards, but we are running out of time.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Gene of the Week: Entrepreneurship (again)

Posted by Pete Shanks on April 2nd, 2014

Cover of book, Born Entrepreneurs, Born Leaders, by Scott Shane

The Scientist on April 1st (but seriously) addressed the burning question, Is there a genetic component to entrepreneurial success? Biopolitical Times discussed this four years ago, when we noted that Case Western professor Scott Shane was touting a book called Born Entrepreneurs, Born Leaders: How Your Genes Affect Your Work Life.

At the time, we were gentle on the researchers but critical of the media reports about their work. This time, it’s the other way round.

The Scientist’s rundown focused again on Shane. He and others keep looking, using registries of twins and genome-wide association studies (GWAS), but the results are distinctly meager. One study, for instance, found that women inherited the propensity to become entrepreneurs, but men did not. We leave some speculation to the reader, but the researcher suggested that women face extra hurdles, so:

only those people who are really determined, who have that genetic makeup [to their advantage], emerge as entrepreneurs because of the hardship in the environment.

Men, however, make up for any genetic disadvantage by relying on social support. Lean in, guys.

Shane is now speculating that the impulse to start a business may be connected to thrill seeking. He and his colleagues found a so-called “candidate gene” that could explain — wait for it — an estimated — really — "0.5 percent of the likelihood of becoming an entrepreneur."

Perhaps they are on the wrong track. Roy Thurik, another entrepreneurship researcher, sadly concludes that "his own GWAS study also measured the wrong outcome” and he should have focused on psychology. However:

That being said, “with the wrong measure and the wrong phenotype, we came so close” to identifying candidate genes.

How close? Well, so close.

Shane’s book is still available but The Scientist didn’t give it a plug.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Discriminatory “DNA Sweeps”

Posted by Jessica Cussins on March 31st, 2014

A “DNA sweep” or “DNA dragnet” refers to the practice of police officers asking large numbers of people to voluntarily give DNA samples in order to help solve a crime. It is a controversial practice that is infrequently used because it can easily impose on what the New York Times has called “constitutional protections against compelled self-incrimination and unreasonable search and seizure.”

The principle that participation is voluntary is fragile, since refusing is interpreted by at least some police officials as itself constituting probable cause for the search. When DNA collections occur at a workplace, particularly when workers’ employment is insecure, people can face particular pressure to comply.

This was the case in a recent DNA sweep in Ontario, Canada, in which police officers went from farm to farm asking migrant workers, many of whom varied significantly from the description of the suspect, to submit their DNA for an investigation into a violent sexual assault. A complaint has now been filed with the Office of Independent Police Review Director, alleging misconduct and racial profiling.

“Despite the fact that the police had specific details about the suspect that should have narrowed the scope of the investigation (i.e. height, age and physical appearance), all black and brown migrant workers were approached during the DNA sweep,” the complaint states…
“If the police are permitted to conduct an investigation without respect of our rights and engage in deplorable practices such as arbitrary detention and racial profiling, then our legal rights to be presumed innocent until proven guilty will be reduced to nothing more than an empty slogan.”
Justicia for Migrant Workers, a group that found and interviewed 44 of the 100 people who voluntarily gave samples, learned that roughly half of those they spoke to were shorter than the specified height of the suspect, and about half were older than 41, when the suspect was said to be in his twenties.
A review of the Ontario Provincial Police department is now underway. The results will be made public in about six months.

Although DNA can be an important tool for solving crimes and exonerating the innocent, the very nature of a large-scale DNA sweep is imprecise and legally questionable. The ease with which a DNA sweep can cause harm to innocent people and increase discrimination against minority communities and impoverished neighborhoods ought to seriously limit its use by a reputable police force.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:



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