Nowhere to hide

When James Watson, Nobel lauriette known for the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA with Francis Crick made his genome public, he decided to keep one small bit private. The APOE gene, whose variants are known to correlate with higher probability of the Alzheimer’s disease.

The logic was, why worry about chances of getting Alzeimers when anyway the information was only probabilistic and there is not much that one can do towards prevention or cure?

Thus in the online data the region of the DNA sequence for the gene as well as adjoining region was erased. All well and good, now no one including Watson himself would know his risk factors for Alzeimer right? Of-course not, that is what this story is about.

There comes a guy named Mike Cariaso with interest in gene variations and expertise in coding, who coolly informed public that erasure notwithstanding, he can still figure out what Watson’s APOE status is from the data.

His strategy is simple to understand, the APOE gene variants happen to have accompanying sequences not only from nearby regions but also from distant sequences. Looking at data on which are the highly probable co-travellers for given variants, it is possible to know which APOE variant Watson has.

That is the crux of the story. The whole story is naturally more complex. There were large number of very capable genetists, atheists and legal experts involved in publication (and witholding) of Watson’s data and yet this important point was missed.

Amazing feats can be achieved with interest, insights and hard work.

Based on an anecdote in “Here is a human being” by Misha Angrist.

Author: strangeset

A nomad at heart, I enjoy observing, analysing, connecting, understanding and dreaming. I am a big fan of science and tech. Forever learning and experimenting.

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