Universal genetic testing may cause the break up of some families.

What became clear to me at a recent meeting I attended is that most everyone is going to have his or her DNA read in the near future. Another thing that became obvious is that scientists aren’t doing enough thinking about what impact this will have on society.

Here’s a seemingly trivial example. In most scenarios I have seen, children‘s DNA is read as soon as they are born. This will definitely have some huge health benefits especially as we learn more and more about how our DNA works and what it means. But this will also have some big unintended consequences too.

Parents will know both their kids’ and their own DNA. From that it will be pretty easy for most anyone to piece together whether or not a child is related to them. In other words, if everyone knows their family’s DNA, then every family will automatically undergo a paternity test. And if some statistics I have seen are true, then a whole lot of people are in for a nasty surprise.

The most recent numbers that I have seen are that something like 3-4% of fathers are unknowingly raising kids who are not their own*. Universal DNA testing will undoubtedly spill the beans in these cases causing many families to break apart.

This “misattributed paternity” is not an unknown problem today…genetic counselors deal with this sort of thing in their practice on occasion. Genetic counselors struggle with what to do with this collateral information and have the option of not revealing it to their patients. Withholding this information won’t be an option in a future where families know their DNA.

So in the not too distant future, up to one million dads in America will find out that little Susie or Jimmy isn’t theirs. Some will be able to deal with this but it will tear many families apart. This will obviously have a huge impact on society.

There will be more subtle effects too. Both men and women will quickly figure out that paternity won’t ever be a secret any more. If you have an affair and have a child, you will be found out.

Will this knowledge work as a sort of moral police, preventing people from having affairs? (Probably not.) Will people be more careful about contraception? Will abortions increase to cover up affairs?

As you can see, just knowing this little bit about our DNA will have profound effects on society. And I haven’t even talked about how medical care and the insurance industry might be restructured. Or how it will affect who you decide to have kids with. Or…

* This is the latest estimate I could find which is much less than the 10-30% number that med school students used to be taught. We won’t have an accurate number until more genetic testing of families is done.

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Who's Your Daddy? 27 September,2010Dr. 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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