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Have your genes sequenced online
(IDG) -- Drive through Oakland, Calif., on Highway 580 and you'll see a sign of the times. Amid a jumble of advertisements for dot-com this and dot-com that stands a bright-blue billboard emblazoned with a double helix: The symbol for DNA, the building block of life.
The sign reads, "General Admission to the Human Genome. DoubleTwist.com: Portal to the Code."
Nearby, at DoubleTwist's headquarters, there are no white-coated technicians, no laboratories. The DNA is digital, residing on dozens of Sun Microsystems computers. The microwave-size black boxes are everywhere -- in hallways, next to water coolers, beside a Foosball table.
The computers store millions of genetic sequences derived from the massive international effort, nearly complete, to map the human genome. Using the raw data stored at DoubleTwist and elsewhere, scientists from the public and private sectors will spend decades in a worldwide effort to try to identify specific genes and their functions in the hope of treating and curing a range of medical disorders.
Internet-based companies like DoubleTwist have emerged to give those scientists access to gene databases and the tools to conduct their research online with colleagues around the world in a field of study called genomics. These online genomics companies are not only changing the way scientists work, they're also using the Internet to offer genetic services directly to people.
Early next year a genomics company called Orchid BioSciences intends to offer a service that will let you scrape off cells from the inside of your cheek and mail them to New Jersey for DNA analysis. You'll then go online to see whether your genetic profile predisposes you to adverse drug reactions. And this summer, a Jim Clark-backed company, Kiva Genetics, plans to begin recruiting on WebMD.com for volunteers willing to donate their DNA for genetic studies.
That's just the beginning. "We're going to provide secure access to individuals' genetic profiles," Celera Genomics President J. Craig Venter recently told investment bankers. It's just a matter of time, predict some genomics executives, before you'll go online to find out whether your genetic profile destines you to develop Alzheimer's or other ailments. Says Jonathan Rothberg, CEO of online genomics company CuraGen: "There's no aspect of your life that isn't going to be affected by this, from conception to death."
But as life itself becomes dot-commed, economic and ethical dilemmas loom. Until these DNA dot-coms prove their worth by helping discover profitable new medicines, Wall Street's current craze for genomics remains speculative. What's more, the prospect of one's DNA being transmitted and shared over the Web raises thorny issues of privacy, confidentiality and the ethics of genetic testing to new levels. Even some genetic scientists worry that science is outstripping public sentiment. Warns Stanford University biochemist Douglas Brutlag, who serves as DoubleTwist's chief scientific officer: "There are important social and ethical issues at play here, and those issues have been underestimated by genomicists."
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