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Seven Big Misconceptions about Heredity

Many people have misconceptions about heredity—how we are connected to our ancestors and how our inheritance from them shapes us. Rather than dispelling those misconceptions, our growing fascination with testing our DNA may only intensify them.

If someone says, “I guess it’s in my DNA,” you never hear people say, “DN—what?” We all know what DNA is, or at least think we do.

It’s been seven decades since scientists demonstrated that DNA is the molecule of heredity. Since then, a steady stream of books, news programs, and episodes of CSI have made us comfortable with the notion that each of our cells contains three billion base pairs of DNA, which we inherited from our parents. But we’ve gotten comfortable without actually knowing much at all about our own genomes.

Indeed, if you had asked to look at your own genome twenty years ago, the question would have been absurd. It would have been as ridiculous as asking to go to the moon. When scientists unveiled the first rough draft of the human genome in the early 2000s, the final bill came to an Apollo-scale $2.7 billion.

Since then, advances in DNA sequencing and software for analyzing genetic data have steadily brought down the price tag. By 2006, it cost only $14 million to sequence a single human genome. Even at that drastically reduced price, though, only a few big labs with major financial support would dare take on such an expensive project. But in the years that followed, DNA sequencing continued its exponential cost crash, becoming cheap enough to turn into a consumer product.

If you want to get your entire genome sequenced—all three billion base pairs in your DNA—a company called Dante Labs will do it for $699. You don’t need whole genome sequencing to learn a lot about your genes, however. The 20,000 genes that encode our proteins make up less than 2 percent of the human genome. That fraction of the genome—the “exome”—can be yours for just a few hundred dollars. The cheapest insights come from “genotyping”—in which scientists survey around a million spots in the genome known to vary a lot among people. Genotyping—offered by companies such as 23andMe and Ancestry—is typically available for under a hundred dollars.

Thanks to these falling prices, the number of people who are getting a glimpse at their own genes is skyrocketing. By 2019, over twenty-five million worldwide had gotten genotyped or had their DNA sequenced. At its current pace, the total may reach 100 million by 2020.

Future generations will look back at today as a pivotal moment in DNA’s cultural history. People are no longer thinking of their DNA as a black box but as a database to be mined. They’re learning that they have inherited mutations that raise their risk of certain diseases. They’re getting estimates of their ancestry based on genetic markers that are common in certain parts of the world. They’re merging their genetic information with genealogy to discover distant relatives. Some are also discovering some not-so-distant relatives that until now were family secrets.

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Seven Big Misconceptions about Heredity Rossi’s E-Cat: Exposé of a Claimed Cold Fusion Device Dragon Hoaxes: Piltdown Men of Creationism