L&S Freshmen Can Have Their DNA Analyzed

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Incoming UC Berkeley freshmen will receive something a bit unconventional in the mail this summer when the campus sends out the traditional welcoming package: cotton swabs.

Rather than receiving the standard book or movie through the College of Letters and Science's "On the Same Page" program, incoming freshmen and transfer students will be given the opportunity to have part of their genome analyzed.

Students who choose to participate will swab their mouths with the cotton swab and send in the resulting DNA sample to be tested for their ability to tolerate alcohol, metabolize lactose and absorb folic acid.

The entire process is confidential according to Jasper Rine, a campus professor of genetics and development biology who will oversee the project.

Each student will receive two bar code labels: one to attach to the cheek swab sample and one to keep. The lab will keep no record of which student receives what bar code. Once the samples are returned, the results will be put in an online database and the students can access their results.

According to Rine, the results of this test will help students make decisions about their diet and lifestyle, and being a part of the experiment will provide an educational experience.

"If they have the common variant of MTHFR, they may want to be sure to eat a diet rich in leafy greens to make sure they get enough folic acid, as this variant causes people to have a higher need for folic acid than others," Rine said in an e-mail. "If they have a common allele of aldehyde dehydrogenase, they will then know that they have a deficiency in metabolizing ethanol. This test is an easier and more pleasant way to learn this than by the empirical testing that is common in this age group."

Past "On the Same Page" programs have introduced students to such books as Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and Stephen Hawking's "A Briefer History of Time." Alix Schwartz, the program's coordinator, said this year she hopes that getting students to actually participate in a personal medicine experiment could engage them in the sciences in ways that books cannot.

"Sampling a person's DNA, determining its sequence characteristics, and then using that information to help treat disease or inform personal decision making is a major goal of personalized medicine," Mark Schlissel, dean of the division of biological sciences, said in an e-mail. "This type of experience is one of the true, unique values of a Berkeley education. We don't just give you books to read, we involve you in cutting edge issues in the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. You won't see this anywhere else in higher education."

Ben Butler, an incoming freshman from Iowa, said though he will be enrolled in the college of engineering and therefore cannot participate, the experiment still excites him.

"Through something scientific and concrete, our knowledge about the student body and about what links us physically as humans - as opposed to emotionally or socially, which is more obvious in the book (or) movie discussions and lectures - will come about more easily through this genealogical experiment," he said in an e-mail.

The campus will be holding a variety of special events and lectures on the subject and in correlation with the initial experiment. According to Schwartz, a science-themed art contest will be open to all undergraduates and will award the four best entries with a full genetic analysis.


Contact Claire Perlman at [email protected]

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