Genetic Testing: Cheaper, Easier

As the cost of genome sequencing drops, questions about its role in society are becoming more pressing

Genome Sequence Trace

U.S. Department of Energy Genome Programs

Just as CD players, personal computers, and HDTVs were prohibitively expensive when they were first released, so too was the cost of sequencing the entire genome of an individual. In 2003 that feat was accomplished for the staggering amount of $437,000,000 after 13 years of work. Today, CD players are ubiquitous and cheap; HDTVs are steadily entering the realm of affordability; and so, too, has the cost of sequencing a genome fallen precipitously. It will still set you back $1,000,000 and two months of time, but that is a tremendous savings over just five years ago. The inevitable is easy to see: one day—2015 by one predictive model's account—the task of sequencing will cost $10 and take a handful of hours. And when the cost of sequencing a person's genome becomes cheaper than a movie ticket, we have entered the time in which a person's most private information is as accessible as a web page.

The immediate moral and ethical questions are boundless. Will fetuses be scanned for inherited traits? Will a mandatory national DNA registry be instituted? Will law enforcement use it as a blanket to throw over every crime scene? What is most important to keep in mind is that as sophisticated as genome sequencing is and with all the information it reveals, it is still at its core nothing more than a tool. It won't replace good police work. It won't replace a healthy diet and exercise. It won't be an accurate indicator for a lot of things—we have only begun to understand how particular genes interact with their environment to bring a condition from a predisposition to a reality.

It's time for us to think about these questions before we're holding the results in our hands.