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The light and dark side of DNA

Your genetic code could help you relate to others - or it could be used against you.

It's been 55 years since the landmark paper on DNA's double helix was published, and five years since scientists revealed the complete genetic code for humans. To mark the anniversary, Friday has been set aside as National DNA Day - and it's a good time to reflect upon how genetics has transformed society.

Since 2003, genetic analysis has opened a new medical frontier. Now a new social frontier awaits as well: Several ventures have set up social networks based on genetic profiles. But there's also a potential dark side to the DNA revolution.

Socializing with DNA

The social trend is rooted in the search for family roots: For years, companies have been offering tests that analyze your DNA for genetic markers that are passed down from father to son, or from mother to children. But once your sample is analyzed, then what? The companies set up online forums that let the people who took the tests compare their results.

That's how I began determining lines of genetic relationships for my own family almost seven years ago - and how I was able to help match up Boyle relatives who didn't know they were related until they took the test.

That kind of genetic matchmaking led to searchable DNA databases ranging from Ybase to the Sorenson Database to the Genographic Project. (My markers are entered into all three of those sites, plus more.) And with the rise of Web sites such as MySpace and Facebook, it's not such a leap to mix genealogy with the social-networking angle.

Last year, Ancestry and GeneTree took that social leap - and more recently, a Canadian venture called Genebase has joined the social movement as well. They'll all sell you their own genetic tests, and right now Ancestry and GeneTree can work with DNA readings from other services - at least to a limited extent.

Too much information?

All these Web sites will surely become more socially adept as time goes - but is there such a thing as too much information? Could entering in your DNA test results lead to privacy problems? Could you be turned down for employment or medical insurance, based on a genetic predisposition to disease (or bad behavior)?

The limited number of markers that are used for genealogical purposes, and that are posted to these public Web sites, probably won't get you in trouble. But privacy policies have to be a concern anytime you send in a DNA test, as we discussed several years ago. That's something to keep in mind as we begin entering the era of whole-genome analysis for personalized medicine.

Right now, the going rate for having your genome fully decoded and handed to you is somewhere around $350,000 - but that rate could quickly fall to the $1,000 price point. But companies such as 23andMe are already offering less ambitious (and less expensive) tests that contain medically significant markers. The ventures are attracting big investments, even as experts debate the obvious ethical issues raised by personalized genetic testing.

To address those issues, Congress is considering a ban on genetic discrimination, and just today the measure won Senate approval. The bill could be signed into law next week.

Will passing a law be enough? Or will we have to guard our DNA as closely as we guard our credit-card numbers and Social Security numbers? Ten years from now, will we be worrying about genome theft as much as we worry about identity theft today? Feel free to weigh in with your comments about the dark side - and the bright side - of DNA Day.