An Icelandic company called deCODE genetics, which has sequenced more whole genomes than any other institution in the world, is trying to find out how genetics determine our life choices.
In the subterranean depths of a granite building on the outskirts of Iceland’s capital, Reykjavík, a robot is slowly and methodically shuffling the chilled blood of tens of thousands of people from all over the world.
Down in this concrete chamber, a well-honed process is taking place. DNA is extracted from the samples and then fed into sequencing machines which slowly piece together the unique lines of chemical bases which form the basis of each individual’s identity. Later on, artificial intelligence algorithms will connect this genetic code or genome with detailed information held in biobanks about their life – their diet, personality, relationship choices, hobbies, the diseases to which they ultimately succumbed – and search for links which scientists might deem statistically significant.
This particular concrete chamber is owned by an Icelandic company called deCODE genetics, which has sequenced more whole genomes – over 400,000 and counting – than any other institution in the world. Through this process it has made major contributions to understanding our inherited risk of Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, coronary artery disease, various forms of cancer, and many other chronic illnesses.
But it has also inspired others to use the same process to delve deep into the human psyche, and find connections between the genome and our personalities, food preferences, and even ability to maintain relationships.
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These kinds of studies are starting to touch on something more intimate than simply the search for new medicines, instead revealing new connections between our genetic code and our life choices. For many scientists it has begun to raise the question, to what extent is our behaviour the product of our own volition, and how much is simply pre-determined by our underlying biology?
“When you look at us as a species, we have come into existence on the basis of information that lives in our genome, and then the interaction of that with the environment,” says Kári Stefánsson, an Icelandic scientist who founded deCODE genetics in 1996, with the initial aim of using Iceland’s unique genetic landscape to understand more about common diseases. The country has a small population that has been relatively isolated over the centuries, meaning that there is much less genetic variation than in other nations. This in turn means that there is less background noise to complicate matters, making it easier for scientists to identify meaningful gene variants.
Part neurologist, part philosopher, the 73-year-old Stefánsson has become ever more convinced that the complex cocktail of DNA we inherit from our parents, along with around 70 spontaneous genetic mutations which we acquire by chance, subconsciously dictates our behaviour to a far greater extent than we are aware.
We may not realise it, but it appears that many routine aspects of our daily lives might be partially driven by our genome. Subtle genetic tweaks in your taste receptors help to determine whether you prefer drinking coffee or tea. It turns out that coffee lovers are less sensitive to the bitterness of caffeine, while tea aficionados do not perceive other types of bitter chemicals quite so potently.
Genetics also play a role when it comes to our inclinations or aversions for all sorts of different activities. At a simplistic level, it governs both how much you enjoy exercising, and whether you prefer more solitary forms of physical activity such as running, or competing with others as part of team sports. But our DNA can also point us towards more specific leisure-time pursuits.
Fifteen years ago, a survey of 2,000 British adults first suggested that there might be such a thing as a hobby gene. Simply looking at a person’s family tree and the favoured pastimes of their ancestors suggested a strong inclination towards certain types of activities. Participants in the survey were often surprised to discover that they actually came from a long line of amateur gardeners, stamp collectors, or cake makers.
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