Genetic information building our identity

Genetics has made its way into the mainstream and is now within the reach of everyone. Currently we are already genuinely at the individual level in research, and we all have the possibility to test ourselves genetically if we wish. The increasing amount of information increases our self-knowledge, but the development also raises some fears. The opportunities and future challenges of increasing genetic information were discussed at the “Fascinating Genes” seminar at the University of Oulu in late November.

Who are we, where do we come from and where are we going? These questions that have perplexed humanity throughout history, and answers have been sought through stories, art, and science. Over the past 20 years or so scientists have also finally mapped the entire human genetic inheritance, or genome, which includes strands of history, personal characteristics, and health.

Finnish genes reveal information on the history of settlement in Finland

Humans first arrived in what is now Finland as the ice began to recede about 11,000 years ago. The first settlers came from the east and north, and in later millennia the population has been augmented by arrivals from areas including the Baltic region and Scandinavia.

Up until very recently the Finnish population was small and settlement was scattered.  In his presentation, Teppo Varilo, a specialist physician, Docent in genetic epidemiology at the University of Helsinki, presented maps which depict the Finnish genetic identity. The genes draw our history: we show a clear division into western an eastern Finns, and even the ancient Finnish tribes remain distinct, for now.  The Finns are, nevertheless, mixing at an accelerating pace. In the future, the Karelian, Savonian, or Tavastian identities will involve cultural characteristics, rather than genetic ones.

In small populations chance has a great impact on the fates of future generations.  Varilo raises one of the most visible consequences of the whims of coincidence - the Finnish disease heritage.  Clarifying the Finnish disease heritage was one of our country's first genetic breakthroughs that opened the doors to a deeper knowledge of the genetic heritage of our nation.

Gene testing as history books and crystal balls

Our country is well placed to have the world's best skills and knowledge in genomics.  "Finland has the world's best genealogy", said Sitra's leading expert Marja Pirttivaara. She is a person with powerful knowledge of genetic and historical genealogy, and she spoke at the seminar on the utilisation of genetic testing services as a tool of genealogical research.

Pirttivaara says that DNA information lets us peek behind the brick walls of family records, enabling us to augment, confirm, or even refute the historical material. People are eager to learn about their own roots: Nearly 10,000 people have joined the Finland DNA project presented by Pirttivaara.  She says that the most valuable property of humanity - genome information - belongs to all people.

Assistant Professor Minna Ruckenstein of the Consumer Society Research Centre at the University of Helsinki, who has studied consumption of digital material, took a slightly more critical view of gene testing marketed to consumers. She says that genetic testing is part of a broader self-knowledge process and is closely linked with today's culture of self-measurement, which is boosted by social media. People have turned themselves into a consumer product, and companies are offering a great variety of tools for examining and measuring it. In the same transaction people often voluntarily relinquish their personal information, which is put into a big database, whose content the companies can sell to third parties.

Genetic information has become part of popular culture. Ruckenstein describes how expert information flows to consumers in a tantalizing form, passed on by companies offering genetic testing. In such a situation, the complexities that lie in the background are often understated. Professionals in the field should take a more assertive role in the interpretation of news and research results related to genes.

Individual genes behind personal characteristics

Each person has an individual combination of different genetic forms that react to environmental factors in different ways. Pharmaceutical prescriptions, nutrition therapy, and tailored products based on a person's own genetic heritage are examples of future applications in which genetic information can be utilised. 

Ursula Schwab, Professor of nutrition therapy at the University of Eastern Finland, has examined the combined effects of genes and nutrition. She gave examples of numerous studies in which people react to nutrients and dietary supplements in different ways depending on their genetic backgrounds. For instance, the question of how many eggs a person can eat can be answered by studying the apoE-gene, because the different forms of this gene affect the absorption of cholesterol. However, there is one universal rule independent of genes: "Live healthier and you can avoid diseases", Schwab emphasises.

Even musical talent has a powerful hereditary component, but in order to develop, it also requires exposure to music. "Musicality is a complicated mesh of neural networks", explained Irma Järvelä, a specialist physician, Docent in medical molecular genetics at the University of Helsinki. In the research musicality has been associated with areas of genetic heritage where genes linked with learning memory, and the development of the inner ear are located. The same genes have also been found to regulate linguistic development and the singing of songbirds. 

Is it permissible to manipulate the genome?

The genetic background of many characteristics and illnesses is already so well-known that certain unwanted characteristics could easily be eliminated from future generations. The technology for this already exists, but is it all right to give genetic treatment to gametes? According to Marko Ahteensuu, a special researcher at the University of Turku, the question requires thorough ethical analysis. In Europe the manipulation of reproductive cells is currently not permitted, but legislation varies in different parts of the world.

The national genome strategy takes the view that in 2020 genetic information in Finland will be in effective use in the promotion of health. Many are worried about the application and commercialisation of genetic knowledge, for which reason the guarantee of data security and the protection of personal privacy take a key role. As Matti Häyry, Professor of Philosophy at Aalto University, explained: "The entire genome is shared, but my genome is my own."

Photo: The seminar was treated to music played with feeling, honouring the centenary of Finnish independence. In the picture is cellist Hilla Laitinen.

The article is based on the seminar on "fascinating genes" which was open to the public and held in Saalasti Hall at the University of Oulu on 20 November, 2017. The seminar was the last public event in the two year Genes and Society - Argumenta project, supported by the Finnish Cultural Foundation and headed by Biocenter Oulu, aimed at promoting societal, and interdisciplinary discussion and the promotion of information on genetic research.

Text: Heidi Aisala-Aalto. The writer is a doctoral student in genetics and is studying for a master's degree in science communication.

Main photo: The Fascinating Genes seminar brought together a large number of people who were interested in information about genes.

Last updated: 20.12.2017