Lone Frank, the award-winning Danish science writer, claims to be shy, but I don’t believe her.
There’s nothing reserved about exposing yourself as she’s done in her entertaining and enlightening new book My Beautiful Genome: Discovering Our Genetic Future One Quirk at a Time. (Oneworld Publications, October 2011.)
Frank bears all in a book that is at once about cutting edge genetic science and also about someone on a personal journey of discovery.
“What is the most interesting subject in the world?” Frank asks. “For all of us, it’s the same thing — ourselves. Me.”
But Frank, who has a Ph.D in neurobiology, isn’t navel gazing here. She uses herself and her “quirks” to delve into the scientific as well as social implications of people having access to their own genetic data. She thinks it’s a good thing, and although this book is about her, Frank is really asking much broader questions.
“The past, in its way, was gone. And the future — well, you could see an end to it,” Frank writes. “At forty-three, I’d reached the age when the chance of having children was pretty much theoretical.”
And at this point in her life, she has questions:
“Where do I come from? Who am I? Am I going to be like my parents? How will I die? And when?”
Not shallow inquiries at all.
Inquiries like these have driven other great scientific pursuits. As the renowned Oxford evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins recently told the New York Times, these are the questions that fuel his work. “My interest in biology was pretty much always on the philosophical side. ‘Why do we exist, why are we here, what is it all about?’”
Framing her own journey, Frank begins her book with a quote from Danish artist Asger Jorn — “The only way to be general is to be deeply personal.”
That’s what she’s done here.
During a call from her home in Denmark, Lone Frank provided the Spittoon with a few tidbits about her new book My Beautiful Genome.
Frank believes we’re at the dawning of the age of personal genomics. It’s a time that’s not too different from the moment just before the personal computer revolution began 30 years ago.
“I think what’s most useful is just getting on the bandwagon and becoming engaged with your biology,” Frank said of genetic testing. “You learn so much more about who you are.”
There’s no doubt from her book that she’s all in on the idea.
The process of looking into her genetics made her “more present in my biology” or simply put — more attuned to her body.
Your genetics are actually malleable, she said. For Frank this was particularly relevant because of her bouts of depression.
“It turns out I’m homozygous for all the bad variants, which makes a lot of sense,” said Frank. “But you can turn that around. When I know this is a biological disposition it’s easier to understand and I can use it to distance myself from stuff when I’m going down that black hole.”
Some tend to see genes as a set of fixed instructions. But those instructions and how a gene is expressed — turned on or off — are influenced by everything from nutrition, stress, hormones and environmental exposures.
“It’s like the black box is getting opened and you’re seeing how your genes and the environment determine whether you get a disease or not,” Frank said.
One reviewer called Frank’s book a bit “masochistic” for her frankness about her bouts of depression, her family’s history of suicides and her own psyche. But there’s a purpose to her over-sharing. In a world where consumers are increasingly getting access to their own genetic data, Frank turns to genetics for answers about her ancestry, her traits and her risks for diseases. And she uses it to delve into difficult questions about her prickly personality.
In one of the many wry and offhand comments in the book she responds to a researcher’s insight into her harsh judgment of others with the thought, ”Give me a break. Doesn’t the man realize how stupid other people can be?”
The book tracks both a personal and a physical journey. As any good journalist would, Frank travels to the source, manifested here by visiting genetics pioneer James Watson at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Watson, who with Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA, has his own personality “quirks”, highlighted publicly through some boorish opinions about women, Africans and overweight people. But Frank bypasses this for a chance to get some insight from him about where the study of genetics is going.
Watson sends her off with two ideas: that “missing heritability” — the Holy Grail of genetics — will be found in rare genetic variants that arise not from the genes you inherit from your parents but through mutations that arise through illnesses and environmental factors; and that “If you want to know something about your genome, you have to have a lot of eyes on it.”
Frank takes this last bit of advice to heart. She uses several direct-to-consumer genetics services to learn about her ancestry, health and traits. She meets with a series of innovators in the personal genomics industry. There’s a conversation with 23andMe co-founder Linda Avey, and deCODE Genetics’s Kari Stefansson. She gets some time with Harvard’s George Church of the Personal Genome Project and Spencer Wells of the National Geographic Society’s “Genographic Project.”
Frank also submits to a study by University of Copenhagen researchers doing experimental work about the genetics around personality. For Frank it isn’t pretty.
“Your agreeableness couldn’t be lower,” they conclude. “Then there is your low score on altruism and sympathy.”
She talks to researchers using genetics to determine the effectiveness of medicines, and delves into whether her Danish ancestry might include a long lost Spaniard. She learns of her risks for breast cancer and peripheral arterial disease. And she dives into how her genetics may influence her propensity toward depression.
In the end Frank finds the process freeing. Genetics isn’t her destiny, she says.
“My genome is not a straitjacket but a soft sweater to fill and shape, to snuggle up and stretch out in,” Frank says. “So who am I? I am what I do with this beautiful information that has flowed through millions of years through billions of organisms and has, now, finally been entrusted to me.”