Incoming freshman at University of California, Berkeley, will have an exciting — or, depending on your perspective, disturbing — opportunity this fall: free genetic testing. Berkeley's College of Arts and Science is sending the entire Class of 2014 a cotton swab kit, and students who mail a DNA sample back will find out potentially valuable information about how their bodies process lactose, alcohol, and folates (a form of vitamin B). Is mass genetic testing of college students a good idea?
Why is Berkeley doing this?
For a number of reasons. In the most practical sense, the school hopes that the testing will help students make better-informed choices as to whether they should avoid dairy (lactose), consume less alcohol, or eat more leafy greens (which are high in folates). University officials say the testing will also serve as a community-building exercise and offer an introduction to the nascent field of personalized medicine.
How much will this cost the cash-strapped university?
If the College of Letters and Science's 5,500 incoming freshmen and transfer students all participate, the genetic testing program would cost about $200,000. Berkeley expects only about 1,000 students will take part — yielding a bill in the range of $40,000 — and says it's seeking private donors to cover the costs.
What about privacy?
The testing is confidential, and nobody but the student is supposed to find out their results. The freshmen will get two identical barcode labels, one that stays with the swab kit and one they keep. The results will be posted, by barcode number, on a website. "We plan to incinerate all the genetic material as soon as this specific experiment is complete," says Berkeley academic-planning director Alix Schwartz.
Is the program controversial?
It was cleared by the university's Human Subjects Review board, but some bioethicists are waving red flags. "It's a bad precedent to set up mass testing without some sort of counseling support," said University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Arthur Caplan. George Annas at Boston University says the alcohol-gene test is "potentially harmful," as it could lead students to believe they can drink with impunity. Berkeley biology professor Jasper Rine, who's overseeing the program, shrugs off the concerns: "Some people worry about meteors landing on their homes. What can I say?"