Molecular Me & the Genomics Revolution

For February 6, 2019   
Hi WN@TL Fans,
Twas a memorable Wednesday last week, with the mercury down to at least 28 below zero, and with the windchill a score or more degrees lower.  As far as I know, it was the first time the university had ever closed for extreme cold and not for deep snow.  Happily, Robert Lemanske’s WN@TL talk on the childhood origins of asthma is rescheduled for March 13.
We have not just memories and myths of bitter cold, but even better, we have records of temperatures and also stories written at the time of the event.  Such records are among the best ways humans have for recalling the past with an accuracy that allows reliable and fair comparisons with the conditions and the people of today.
“It is written” is among the most powerful incantations in our culture.  Oral history is, for good or ill, held in a dimmer light than written history.  When I was cutting my teeth, “prehistoric” literally meant “before written documentation.”  
In the mid 1950’s molecular biologists began to search for metaphors to help explain and explore the working of DNA as a hereditary molecule. The similarity of DNA to written language—DNA is like a four-letter alphabet—resulted in scientists drawing on key concepts from linguistics, including transcription, translation and replication.
And from the helix came a twist:  is our DNA our destiny, written in our genes? 
In the mid 1990’s, as entire DNA sequences of plasmids, viruses and microbes became available, a kind of genomic hermeneutics and molecular exegesis developed as biologists, akin to Biblical scholars, compared subtle or sublime differences in the variant texts.
Today, nearly exactly 18 years since the first Human Genome Project sequences were announced on February 15, 2001, we face challenges both intriguing and daunting as to how to use, and how not to abuse, the rushing springs of DNA data that now pour out of our labs.  Such data truly is changing how we look at life and how we lead our lives.    
Jason Fletcher of the LaFollette School will be here to talk about “Molecular Me: Exploring the Social Implications of the Genomics Revolution.”  Here’s how he describes his talk:
The presentation will describe some of the recent major advances in genomics and their implications for policy and society. One focus will be on how statistical methods applied to “big data” in human genetics, often within private companies, offer new avenues for discrimination as well as targeted interventions and how new policies may be needed to address these rapid changes.
About the Speaker:
Jason Fletcher is a Romnes Professor of Public Affairs with appointments in Sociology, Agricultural and Applied Economics and Population Health Sciences as well as the Director of the Center for Demography on Health and Aging at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 
Prior to coming to UW in 2013, he held appointments at Yale University and Columbia University. Fletcher has published over 100 academic articles and has received research funding from the National Institutes of Health, William T. Grant Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Russell Sage Foundation, among others. 
A health economist by training, he has worked to integrate genetics and social science over the past decade, culminating in his book, The Genome Factor.
Next week (February 13)  Deren Eaton of Columbia University will be here as the guest of the James F. Crow Center for the Study of Evolution and the Crow Center’s “Darwin Days” celebration.  
He’ll be here to take us to the Tibetan Plateau where he studies plants that give us insights into the processes that drive evolution.  It’s a high altitude exploration into some deep biological mysteries.  
I hope to see you again next week at Wednesday Nite @ The Lab.
Tom Zinnen
Biotechnology Center & Extension Division