Love & Sex
One strand of your lover's hair, one USB-like device that you plug into the side of your laptop and hey presto you can find out whether your partner is likely to be a love rat.
At-home DNA testing of compatibility may sound like something out of Gattaca, but it won't be too long before it's on a supermarket shelf near you.
"I think it's inevitable," says Professor Michael Gillings, a biologist from Macquarie University, "because it's going to be really easy to do. It's quick, cheap... and you'll be able to buy it off the shelf and just do it."
Among other things, the tests will be able to tell whether someone is more likely to commit long-term or to cheat.
It works by profiling the genes that control neurotransmitters such as oxytocin (which relates to commitment) and vasopressin (which relates to fidelity).
"When you are going out with a new guy, you could get a sample of his DNA, sequence it and say, 'I'm not going out with him, he's got a tiny part of his gene that would be a good prediction he is going to be promiscuous,'" Gillings told CLEO magazine in a story on the subject published yesterday.
"It seems almost too good to be true... to find whether a guy is right for you," says CLEO Editor Sharri Markson of the tests, which are currently only available in labs and are only based on testing men.
"I'd love to make a guy do it."
It's a fast-track to finding out whether you're wasting your time on a relationship, she says. "How long does it take to know whether a guy is trustworthy? I reckon it's worth the money."
At around $900 a pop, it is not an insignificant amount.
"But the price will go right down," Gillings says. He also predicts the tests will become popular commercially.
He anticipates "DNA match-making where along with your profile on e-Harmony, you submit a DNA sample".
If the idea of this sort of technology and how it will be applied makes your skin crawl, you wouldn't be without reason.
"Ethically it's a minefield," Gillings says.
"There are two problems - the ethics of testing someone without their knowledge - you just need a strand of their hair. The final thing is because this is about behaviour it's about interpretation.
"You could have someone with a standard monogamy gene but they are in an industry or situation where they're tempted. Or you can have all the markers of a philandering bastard but because he got cheated on by his first girlfriend he knows what it's like so doesn't do it."
The point is that people using the technology, called nanopore DNA sequencing, may believe that genes govern all our behaviour or that we can make concrete predictions based on such tests.
But we cannot. Even if someone tests as being less likely to commit or cheat, it doesn't mean they won't.
"There's a strong correlation between the presence of certain genes and the exhibition of certain behaviour traits," Gillings explains. "But, genes are not the sole arbiter of behaviour."
Environmental and experiential factors come into play. It is also not just about the gene, but about the expression of it.
For instance, a study published in the June edition of the journal Nature Neuroscience found that modifying the expression of certain genes in promiscuous prairie voles, who usually mate for life, settled their wanton ways.
"All of a sudden this promiscuous rodent becomes a stay-at-home dad," Gillings told CLEO. "It's a gene that looks to control promiscuity and parental investment - and humans have it."
We may well have it but one has to wonder whether the use of such technology is just an attempt to control love and avoid pain.
Understandable perhaps, but if relationships never failed what chance would there be to learn?
"How do children learn how to interact with strangers if they never meet any?" Gillings ponders.
Despite the risks of misinterpretation and the ethical implications, technology like this is likely to prove too tempting to resist for many.
Gillings says it's a matter of buyer beware.
"The take home message is that genes are not absolute determiners of people's behaviour. Environment and experience overlays on the basic genetic toolkit."
- Sydney Morning Herald
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