Can genetics help them be all they can be?

A new report commissioned by the Department of Defense recommends that everyone in the military eventually get their DNA sequenced. The idea is that scientists can use this treasure trove of information to quickly learn a lot about which bits of DNA lead to which traits or diseases. The military brass would then use this information to better care for soldiers and to make a more effective fighting force.

For example, maybe they will be able to find people who are more prone to suffer from post traumatic stress disorder. These folks could then be kept away from the front lines.

Or maybe they can find soldiers who are more likely to be resistant to certain diseases. These folks would be the ones sent to regions where those diseases are common. And so on.

Of course they will also find out many other things that may be more useful to society (and the soldier’s personal lives) like which bits of DNA predispose someone to diabetes, cancer, heart disease, etc. And which bits make someone more likely to be tall, strong, have dark hair or green eyes or anything else the scientists can measure.

This obviously has the potential for good but it still feels a bit creepy to me. Especially if the military misuses or abuses the information it gets.

Everyone (including the military) has to be careful not to over interpret the data. Just because a piece of DNA correlates with a lower risk of PTSD, that does not mean it is the only piece of DNA that does. It may just be one of many.

So you can imagine people who are at a higher risk for PTSD being moved to the front lines because an incomplete understanding of their DNA made them look like they were at a lower risk. These kinds of mistakes would be bad for the soldier and may eventually cost us a war.

There also needs to be some kind of oversight to prevent outright abuse by military officials who do not understand the limitations of our DNA knowledge. We need to make sure they don’t do what a railroad company did a few years ago.

Back in 2001 railroad workers brought a suit against BNSF railroad. The suit alleges that the company secretly tested 125 workers for a DNA snippet that increases someone’s risk for developing carpal tunnel syndrome. The story was that BNSF wanted to be able to deny worker’s compensation for any of these workers that developed carpal tunnel syndrome because they had a pre-existing condition.

Besides being against the law, this was also just plain stupid on the part of the railroad. They did not understand that the DNA snippet was not really predictive and that it was one of many genetic factors that can lead to an increased risk. They basically tried to figure out what the elephant looked like from just its tail.

The military may also use genetics to exclude some people from jobs they’d like to do or from the military entirely. I am not sure we will ever know DNA well enough to justify this sort of thing but at the very least we need to be sure that the generals understand what we can and can’t learn from our DNA. And that we update the military head honchos constantly.

Once the cost of reading our DNA drops to $1000 or less, we’ll all eventually be getting our DNA sequenced. And if the military follows the report’s recommendations, then the military will be testing the waters of our genetic pool. We can all learn from the mistakes they make along the way. I just hope the learning process doesn’t endanger any of our soldiers.

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A Better Military Through Genetics 6 July,2011Dr. Barry Starr


Dr. Barry Starr

Dr. Barry Starr (@geneticsboy) is a Geneticist-in-Residence at The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, CA and runs their Stanford at The Tech program. The program is part of an ongoing collaboration between the Stanford Department of Genetics and The Tech Museum of Innovation. Together these two partners created the Genetics: Technology with a Twist exhibition.

You can also see additional posts by Barry at KQED Science, and read his previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.

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