The University of California at Berkeley has tried to create a common intellectual experience for new students to welcome them to the University and to generate discussion. Last year, Berkeley sent all of its freshmen and transfer students “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” a book by Michael Pollan about America’s food industry.
This year, they went a step further. The class of 2014 received something quite unusual: A cotton swab to insert in their cheek and send to the University for a DNA test. The University will take all of the students’ samples and test them for certain genetic attributes.
The DNA Test
While DNA testing can tell a lot about your predisposition to certain diseases and serious health risks, Berkeley chose to test their student’s genes for the ability to metabolize alcohol, lactose and folate.
Administrators selected these tests because they’re less controversial and as a University spokesman explained, help students lead healthier lives by knowing if they would be better drinking less alcohol, eating less dairy products or eating more vegetables.
This is the first mass genetic testing done by a University. Jasper Rine, the genetics professor leading the project justified the purpose of this test as helping students learn about personalized medicine and get them interested in this topic.
The project is part of Berkeley’s annual On the Same Page program. Incoming students usually receive the same books or movies the summer before they arrive to generate a common, bonding experience and to discuss it later.
How Will Students Receive Their Test Results?
The DNA test is voluntary and results confidential. Each student receives two bar code labels, one to send back with the sample and another to keep. The results of the test will be posted on a web site with the bar code used as the identification. Only the person who took the test can access the information.
Berkeley hasn’t chosen a company to analyze the DNA samples, but the testing is expected to cost the university about $50,000.
While it’s good to expose these college freshman to one of the hottest fields in medicine, many people have been criticizing this project. Many bioethicists have expressed discontent with the idea of genetic testing outside the medical setting. They predict students getting their results and having many questions, and not being able to receive follow up counseling.
Furthermore, while most Berkeley professors view the testing as harmless, there are certain risks that may occur. For example, if certain students test negative for the alcohol test, it may lead them to conclude they could drink more alcohol.
Ethical and Privacy Problems
While this test is voluntary and supposed to be confidential, it raises many concerns. Many of these students, barely 18, will hand over their DNA to this institution without fully considering future implications. For instance:
- Who will maintain this information?
- Will anyone else have access to it?
- Is there any possibility that the test results, as several genetic tests thus far have, may end up affecting their future employment or health insurance?
- Do parents have the right to find out the results?
While the university promised to destroy the DNA after the tests, what happens if this information is later used for different purposes or stolen? What if the web site is hacked?
Further ethical issues come into play here: What are the school’s rights with this data? Can they decide if certain students can stay or reject them because they may be more prone to certain behavior?
One thing is sure, Berkeley prides itself on encouraging and stimulating conversation about important and controversial topics, and it looks like it hit the spot with this DNA test.