A course on your own DNA

Nieuws | de redactie
10 april 2013 | A controversial Stanford course has given hundreds of students the opportunity to learn about genetics in a unique format, through the analysis of their own genotype. This personal genotyping can reveal hidden truths, like which student has the most Neanderthal DNA.

According to Genetics Professor Stuart Kim, who is one of the course directors, faculty members worried that genetic discoveries could cause students additional stress. They eventually concluded that the course’s benefits outweighed the disadvantages.

Embrace the genetic knowledge

“We do believe that information is power, and that the power from knowing counterbalances the stress from the knowing,” he said. “We made a kind of philosophical decision that knowledge is power, and that students should embrace the knowledge instead of staying ignorant.”

Enrolled students attend several informed consent sessions about the legal and ethical implications of genotyping before the course begins and can choose to study public genotype files instead of their own DNA. However, a survey of the first class reveals that students who work with their own genetic material outperform students who use public files. “I want to learn about me and what’s coming up,” explained Kateryna Kozyrytska who follows the class. “It’s more interesting to look at your data than at some random data.”

Discuss the results

Kim said that students who are disturbed by the genotyping results can discuss the results with a genetic counselor from, the company that provides the genotyping kits, or a University psychiatrist. According to Kim, one student spoke to a genetic counselor during the first year of the class.

While students are not expected to discuss personal information about their genotypes, Kim noted that in recent years an increasing number of students have chosen to share their discoveries with the class.“I can remember the two students who had the most Neanderthal DNA jumping up and down saying they were the most Neanderthal,” Kim said.

Although the course was initially designed for medical students, Kim said that the class is now comprised of graduate students, Ph.D. candidates and even undergraduates. He attributed the diverse range of students to the course material’s new prominence in investigative research, noting genomics’ practical application in fields like prescribing appropriate drug dosages.

“It’s absolutely a fascinating and exploding area of research right now,” Kim said, adding that genotypes “allow us to analyze humans and what makes us different in being human.” Even as interest surges, some, like Kozyrytska’s family in Ukraine, are less enthusiastic about the potential for discovery that genotyping offers. “To them, it felt that if there’s no obvious solution to the problem you learn about, then you may as not well learn about the problem, because you can’t do anything about it,” Kozyrytska said.

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