DNA Talk with Adam Rutherford

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Adam Rutherford talks to Viki Shah about variable DNA testing kits, genetic makeup and how it all impacts our lives. Adam will be in Dubai for the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in February.

1. Scientific knowledge about DNA has radically increased in the last few years. What can this new information tell us?

Unfathomable amounts. DNA has revolutionized every aspect of the life sciences, from health, medicine, evolution, education, even data storage. But what is more important to ask is what DNA cannot tell us. The impact of DNA research can be overstated, and a reliance on genetics as a means of predicting behaviors in people is potential folly, rested on a misunderstanding of how DNA actually works.

2. How accurate are those mail-order DNA testing kits?

Highly variable. Sometimes, companies use different panels to check your results against, so you might get different ancestry results from different companies. We assume the actual reading of the data is correct, but have little way to check. One ancestry company didn’t detect that someone had actually sent in a sample from their dog! In my view, they should all be taken with a pinch of salt.

3. These days we see companies determining your genetic makeup and then advising on wellbeing. How far do you think is this accurate or useful?

I can’t really comment on the accuracy, because we just don’t know. As for useful, I would say, not very much at all. Mostly these results can be applied broadly to populations, and not to individuals, as probabilities. There’s very little that DNA can tell you about lifestyle that I can’t tell you right now, because it’s standard advice whose impact is far greater: eat a balanced diet, lots of vegetables, exercise, don’t smoke, wear sunscreen.

 4. What do you think is the future of DNA research and how will it be useful to us in our daily lives?

We have much still to learn. DNA is at the core of our being, but it is only a component of a lived life. In medicine, we have a long way to go in understanding how DNA mutations cause diseases, such as cancers, and how we can treat them. In evolutionary biology, we have much to learn about the human story, how we came to be what we are. The road is long, but we are on it. 

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Dr Adam Rutherford is a geneticist, writer and broadcaster. He presents BBC Radio 4’s flagship science radio programme, Inside Science, as well as many documentaries. On TV, Adam presented the award-winning Horizon: Playing God, The Gene Code and The Cell. He was a scientific advisor to Björk’s movie Biophilia Live and worked on Ex Machina and Annihilation.

Book your session with him today at: https://www.emirateslitfest.com/authors/adam-rutherford/

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