DNA Double Take
By CARL ZIMMER
Published: September 16, 2013
From biology class to “C.S.I.,” we are told again and again that our genome is at the heart of our identity. Read the sequences in the chromosomes of a single cell, and learn everything about a person’s genetic information — or, as 23andme, a prominent genetic testing company, says on its Web site, “The more you know about your DNA, the more you know about yourself.”
But scientists are discovering that — to a surprising degree — we contain genetic multitudes. Not long ago, researchers had thought it was rare for the cells in a single healthy person to differ genetically in a significant way. But scientists are finding that it’s quite common for an individual to have multiple genomes. Some people, for example, have groups of cells with mutations that are not found in the rest of the body. Some have genomes that came from other people.
“There have been whispers in the matrix about this for years, even decades, but only in a very hypothetical sense,” said Alexander Urban, a geneticist at Stanford University. Even three years ago, suggesting that there was widespread genetic variation in a single body would have been met with skepticism, he said. “You would have just run against the wall.”
But a series of recent papers by Dr. Urban and others has demonstrated that those whispers were not just hypothetical. The variation in the genomes found in a single person is too large to be ignored. “We now know it’s there,” Dr. Urban said. “Now we’re mapping this new continent.”
Dr. James R. Lupski, a leading expert on the human genome at Baylor College of Medicine, wrote in a recent review in the journal Science that the existence of multiple genomes in an individual could have a tremendous impact on the practice of medicine. “It’s changed the way I think,” he said in an interview.
Scientists are finding links from multiple genomes to certain rare diseases, and now they’re beginning to investigate genetic variations to shed light on more common disorders.
Science’s changing view is also raising questions about how forensic scientists should use DNA evidence to identify people. It’s also posing challenges for genetic counselors, who can’t assume that the genetic information from one cell can tell them about the DNA throughout a person’s body.