Spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to map your genome may be the latest fad to glean the future. But for all the billions spent on research, genetic testing isn't a cure-all for what might ail you, and it could lead to significant trouble for individuals and society if misused.
Researchers and businesses are eager to profit by selling genetic tests to assess everything from paternity or sexual computability to an individual's susceptibility to disease.
For some, such tests can be a blessing. Women with a family history of breast cancer have avoided mastectomy after tests indicated the absence of genetic mutations linked to the disease. But a test showing susceptibility to Alzheimer's could be disheartening, for there's no cure there.
Without good advice, many genetic tests can lead to bad decisions. But most physicians are relatively ill equipped to assess genetic test results, and the Food and Drug Administration doesn't regulate the quality of most genetic tests, which increases the potential for trouble.
Still, there is a powerful lure to gaining access to the secrets locked in our genes, and companies are marketing the magic. For $30, you can buy a kit that promises (with the payment of a $119 lab fee) to determine a child's paternity with 90 percent accuracy - 99 percent if both likely parents are tested. Or you can buy a decoded version of your entire 3 billion-letter DNA code for $350,000, a relatively harmless diversion for the rich.
Wait a year and you may be able to buy it for $200,000 or less. Science's skill at decoding individual genetic sequences is advancing that quickly.
But identifying the code is far from understanding it. So far, only a small number of diseases have been linked to a single genetic mutation, while several dozen others appear to be strongly connected to specific diseases or individual human characteristics. This information can be helpful in taking steps to avoid increasing the risk of a genetically linked illness such as Lou Gehrig's disease or to discover early evidence of colon cancer, but little more than that.
Genetic testing is likely to become much more useful in treating illnesses and in assessing the genetic roots of an individual's physical qualities and behavioral habits. As computers crunch the data on mutations in millions of genomes, our knowledge is expected to grow exponentially.
But knowledge can be a dangerous thing. People could be denied insurance or jobs or discriminated against in other ways, depending on their genetic score. These dangers invite thoughtful consideration of how to ensure our genetic privacy and avoid the impulse to pursue genetic perfection in some Brave New World.