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Monthly interest group delves into DNA


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By Kasra Zarei

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Your DNA can tell a lot about you. The evolution of science and technology has created easy access to direct-to-consumer genetic tests, capable of providing individuals with an abundance of information about their genetic profile.

Personal genomics and DNA testing companies such as 23andme allow people to obtain information about their genomes, or their complete set of genetic information. 

Household genetic tests report a large amount of information that can be
difficult for the non-scientific audience to digest, creating a need for scientists to be accessible to answer the public’s questions.

Bryant McAllister, University of Iowa associate professor of biology, and his students make up a group of civic-minded scientists eager to provide a monthly genomics forum at the Iowa City Public Library, 123 S. Linn St.

This year, McAllister is working to lead a monthly interest group that can be sustained long-term.

“My goal of the interest group is to provide a forum where we can go through particular topics in genetics each month,” he said, speaking at his most recent forum, on Feb. 28.

The overall goal of the monthly DNA interest group to provide a pathway for individuals to get involved in their personal genetics research.

“The focus of our forums is on direct-to-consumer genetics tests and the goal is to support the users of these tests so that they understand better the information that is reported,” McAllister said.

Humans are made of cells, and the cells in the body (normally) have 23 pairs of chromosomes. These pairs of chromosomes, or pairs of different DNA molecules, are inherited from an individual’s parents. Think of these pairs as two editions of the same book that contain spelling differences.

“With each commercial DNA test, your genome or a subset of your genome is assessed for the particular spelling of your DNA when you send in your biological sample,” McAllister said. “The different companies use common testing technology that assess known variable sites in the DNA of your genome.”

The common technology that powers companies such as 23andme, Ancestry DNA, and Family Tree DNA, is called the SNP array. This small piece of technology detects single nucleotide polymorphisms, a variation at a single site in your DNA.

“Commercial genetic tests are interrogating about 600,000 sites in your genome that have known variation in humans,” McAllister said. “These sites have been characterized through research by looking at people from various populations in the world.”

Speaking at the forum, McAllister noted that companies can perform ancestry prediction based on these known sites of variations. Given someone’s genetic profile, companies can provide an estimate of the geographic area that her or his ancestors come from.

At the most recent forum, students in McAllister’s outreach group, including UI biology graduate student Kyle McElroy, and undergraduate biology student Jorge Moreno described their experiences navigating online personal genomics platforms.

“As an evolutionary biologist, I think all the history and biology we can learn about ourselves from analyzing our genomes is incredible but sometimes difficult to understand,” McElroy said.

“Genetics is one of the more abstract concepts in biology, and presenting it from a personal perspective, I believe, helps people better understand and grasp the difficult concepts in personal genomics,” Moreno said.

The Feb. 28 event drew a full room of people from the public, not just the scientific community.

“Much of our training and careers are supported by the public, and for them to understand why all of that is important, we need to be visible and share our knowledge,” McElroy said.

Future meetings of the monthly DNA interest group will focus on topics including how to interpret one’s SNP data — that is, understanding how a variation in one DNA site can potentially alter personal, observable traits.

The next forums will be held on March 28, April 25, and May 23 in Public Library Meeting Room A.

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