The DNA Assignment

May 18, 2010

The University of California at Berkeley is an experimental place, and sometimes those experiments start as early as the summer before new students set foot on campus.

This summer, the university’s College of Letters and Science -- home to three quarters of Berkeley’s 25,000 undergraduates -- will ask freshmen and transfers to return a cotton swab covered in cells collected from their inner cheeks in an effort to introduce them to the emerging field of personalized medicine.

Like so many other institutions, the college usually asks students to read a specific book or watch an assigned movie in the weeks before classes start, to inform discussion during orientation and throughout the fall. But a reading assignment didn’t make sense for something as cutting-edge and personalized as genetic analysis.

“Science is moving so fast right now,” said Alix Schwartz, director of academic planning for the college’s undergraduate division. “If we assigned them a book, it would be out-of-date by the time they read it.” Last year's assignment for the program, called "On the Same Page," was Michael Pollan's account of food chains, The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

This year, said Mark Schlissel, the college’s dean of biological sciences, a look at personalized medicine made sense. “For now, it’s mostly a research tool, but in the coming years it’s going to become part of everyday medical practice, based on your very personal genetics.”

Geneticists will analyze each sample for three genes: metabolism of folate, tolerance of lactose and metabolism of alcohol, all relatively innocuous and perhaps useful in students’ daily lives. Students will be able to use that information to learn if they should eat more leafy green vegetables, steer clear of milk products or limit alcohol intake.

The idea is not to identify potentially dangerous genes in students' samples, but to point out traits that can be managed through behavior, said Jasper Rine, a professor of genetics, genomics and development. “We want to get people to appreciate that there are things you can do that enhance your health based on the genes you have,” he said. “There are concrete, actionable, specific steps that do enhance quality of life. This is the message of the post-genomic era.”

Samples will nonetheless be kept confidential. Students will be sent two barcode stickers, one to attach to the submitted sample and the other to keep. “This is all going to be done with institutional safeguards for privacy,” Schlissel said. The university’s Committee for Protection of Human Subjects scrutinized the plans closely to ensure that the project would be “ethical and private and the like.”

Students will be able to check the analysis of their own samples on a website by entering the barcode they have kept. “This is a very participatory way to get them to engage in the conversation, to have something to talk about with their fellow students and with the faculty,” Schwartz said. The college will host a website with optional readings, a public lecture delivered by Rine and a series of panel discussions on legal and ethical issues related to the emergence of personalized genomic technologies.

Schwartz said that faculty from throughout the college “are pretty excited about exploring all the issues around personalized medicine because it’s so controversial.” Regardless of “what kind of disciplinary leanings the students have, we think there will be something that connects them to this at an intellectual or personal level.”

Jennifer Keup, director of the National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition at the University of South Carolina, said Berkeley’s project is “the most atypical I’ve heard about.”

Most institutions with an assignment for incoming students choose to assign readings, while a few opt for films or a common service activity over the summer, she said. “There’s this idea that you’re creating community and introducing students to higher level college thought, and those are the usual ways colleges choose to do it,” she said. “But it definitely doesn’t surprise me that Berkeley is doing something like this.… It’s in line with the culture and ethos and history of the place.”

Even so, Schwartz said that, like any good experiment, it’s a one-time thing. “I don’t think we’d do it again or twice in a row,” she said. “Who knows what creative thing the deans will come up with next.”

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