Looking Ahead to 2009

Posted by Jesse Reynolds January 12, 2009
Biopolitical Times

In the final part of our trilogy of new year's posts (1, 2), the Biopolitical Times bloggers make some predictions for 2009.

Direct-to-Consumer (DTC) genetic testing companies should brace themselves for the inevitable media backlash after a year of adoring publicity. More reporters are likely to pick up the idea that "genetic information today is essentially meaningless at the individual level." Combine that with increasing concerns about genetic privacy in "a world in which our DNA can be screened by anybody at anytime," and with likely complaints about conspicuous consumption during a depression, and there could be some bad publicity ahead. They'll probably weather the storm.

There's little doubt about who will be Biologist of the Year: Charles Darwin. His 200th birthday is on February 12th, followed on November 24th by the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species. The British Natural History Museum is in the thick of its Darwin 200 celebrations, and lists events all year all over Britain. Darwin Day Celebration has more of a North American focus. There's talk of a movie and maybe two.

In the realm of wild, uninformed speculation, 2009 may be the year that scientists agree (again) on what a gene is. The word "gene" (as, essentially, "unit of heredity") is 100 years old this year, but late 20th-century definitions have been increasingly hobbled by anomalies. The ENCODE Project showed in 2007 that "non-gene" sequences have vital functions, leading some to ask, "What is a gene, post-ENCODE?" and others to say that the gene is having an "identity crisis." Even if that gets resolved, however, we probably won't have a definitive answer this year to the grand old question: how many genes do humans have?

Although criticism is mounting, expect the expansion of DNA databases to include the genetic profiles of arrestees to continue. Currently, only a handful of states permit including DNA profiles from people arrested but not convicted of felonies (otherwise known as "innocent people") in their criminal database. With California and the federal government shifting policies this month to include arrestees’ DNA, expect more states and localities to follow suit. 

Our grandparents sold apples on the street, and lined up outside soup kitchens. Will we be telling our grandchildren stories about young women vying to sell their eggs and land contracts to carry pregnancies for affluent couples? As the economy gets worse, it will be a buyers' market for eggs and surrogates (1, 2, 3). Will the hard-to-miss lessons of inadequate regulation of financial markets be applied to the markets for eggs and wombs?

After an initial flurry of media coverage surrounding the new president lifting Bush's  funding restrictions, human embryonic stem cell research will fade as a relevant political issue. Cellular reprogramming will continue to make strides, and cloning-based work will stagnate, with researchers continuing to abandon the field.

Synthetic biology will be heralded by the media as the "next big thing," much like nanotechnology was a few years ago. The big question is if, and when, scientists led by Craig Venter will successfully transplant their synthesized bacterial genome into an existing bacterium, and have it function. My money is on the eventual success of this endeavor, but not this year. There's a decent chance that a synthetic biology "hacker" will accidentally cook up a deadly microbe in a bathtub sooner.

Discussion of "second generation PGD" will gather steam in academic and quasi-academic publications. In this, traditional PGD is coupled with wider genome scans - whose price is plummeting - to allow prospective parents to select among embryos based upon multiple genetic characteristics. Furthermore, the role of prenatal scanning will begin to change, as more tests become available that analyze fetal DNA in the prospective mother's blood at five or six weeks of pregnancy.