genetics

Is DNA Testing of Immigrants a Threat to Us All?

In May 2019, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) implemented a program called Rapid DNA testing—subjecting families crossing the Mexican border to cheek swab tests, which produce extensive DNA profiles in less than two hours that are entered into a national criminal database. The initial pilot program, begun this summer, was ostensibly rolled out to identify “fraudulent family units”—groups of children and adults who are not blood-related but were trying to achieve special immigration status—and prosecute them for fraud.

Lab Notes: A New Class Brings CRISPR to the People

The announcement came in June. Berkeley Extension, the continuing education arm of UC Berkeley, was offering its first-ever introductory courseCRISPR Genome Editing: From Biology to Technology—on the revolutionary new tool that allows scientists to make precise edits in the genome. A lab and lecture course on CRISPR for anyone who has the interest (and money) to enroll? What a crazy idea. It seemed a bit like offering a workshop on how to enrich plutonium.

From the Winter 2019 issue of California.

Meet CRISPR: Humanity’s Shiny New Tool

One of biology’s wilder facts is that we’re all family. You and me, sure, but also me and a mushroom. Triceratops shared genes with you. So does the virus that makes you cough, and a rosebush. Bacteria left us on the tree of life around 2.7 billion years ago, but the wet world they came from is still ours: One code runs all of life. The same proteins that imprint memories in your neurons, for example, do so in octopi, ravens, and sea slugs. This genetic conservation means tricks from one species can be hijacked. If you stick a jellyfish gene in a monkey, it’ll glow green.

From the Winter 2019 issue of California.

Flash Fiction: “A Mercy, A Sport”

It was about time! We’d finally figured it out! What would this grand experiment emit? Every newborn had been subjected to the question: What happens if we cut out this sequence or that one? We’d been doing these CRISPR tests for years, so as to evolve using those Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. Know thyself! Now, modify. Was it a mercy? Or a sport?

From the Winter 2019 issue of California.

Kiss Me, I’m 61.5% Irish

THE YEAR HAS BEEN A JUMBLE FOR ME. Long story short: I was Portuguese, then I wasn’t, then I was again.

It all started after my wife and I spat in vials and mailed the samples off to a laboratory, where our DNA was extracted from the skin cells that had sloughed off into our saliva. Many thousands of DNA segments were read and analyzed, and the results returned via email.

From the Winter 2019 issue of California.

Intolerable Genius: Berkeley’s Most Controversial Nobel Laureate

IN THE SUMMER OF 1984 the senior scientists of Cetus Corp., a Berkeley biotech company, found themselves in a bind. One of their employees, a promising young scientist named Kary Mullis, had dreamed up a technique to exponentially replicate tiny scraps of DNA. He called it polymerase chain reaction (PCR), and if it worked it would change the world and likely earn Cetus a mountain of money. The only problem was Mullis was an interpersonal wrecking ball.

From the Winter 2019 issue of California.

Blood Work: The Citizen Sleuth Using Genealogy to ID the Dead

ON APRIL 24, 1981, THE BODY OF A YOUNG WOMAN with auburn braids and a fringed jacket was discovered off the side of a road in Troy, Ohio.

She had been strangled to death only hours before. Authorities took DNA samples but couldn’t find a match for the woman. For decades, she was described only by the clothes on her back: “Buckskin Girl.”

From the Winter 2019 issue of California.

Editor’s Note: The Genetics Issue

Brave New World author Aldous Huxley came to Berkeley (his son’s alma mater) in 1962 and delivered a speech on campus entitled “The Ultimate Revolution.” It ended as follows: “Our business is to be aware of what is happening, and then to use our imagination to see what might happen, how this might be abused, and then, if possible, to see that the enormous powers which we now possess thanks to these scientific and technological advances be used for the benefit of human beings and not for their degradation.”

From the Winter 2019 issue of California.

The Ethics of Hunting Down John Doe

Last month’s arrest of NorCal Rapist suspect, Roy Charles Waller, sent shockwaves across the Cal campus and the state. Waller, after all, was a longtime employee of UC Berkeley’s Office of Environment, Health and Safety, and his capture resulted from a new forensic tool that promises to solve many cold cases: open-source genealogical databases.

The Weather When You Were In Utero? Study Suggests it Influences Your Heart Attack Risk

Fall and winter birthdays can be a real drag.

September celebrants will forever have their special days clouded by the beginning of a new school year. October through December birthdays are too closely clustered to all the good holidays, leaving the rest of the year a giftless wasteland. And while all the Geminis and Cancers get to have their parties in the park, the children of winter are forced to blow out their candles indoors and out of the gloom.

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