Incoming freshmen at the University of California-Berkeley who dread the thought of college exams will at least get to start with an easier test, if they choose; one that involves only a cotton swab and a quick rub on the inside of their cheeks.
The Class of 2014 will be asked to submit to a DNA test as part of a university-wide project. The project, which is the first example of mass genetic testing by a university, looks at three genes. One is related to the ability to break down alcohol, another may point to difficulty digesting dairy products and one regulates the body's ability to absorb the vitamins contained in green, leafy vegetables.
While they may lack the gravitas associated with other genetic tests that have garnered recent headlines, such as home tests designed to assess the risk for Alzheimer's, diabetes and breast cancer, people behind the latest effort say it should yield some enlightening results.
"This is an educational project, not a research project," said Jasper Rine, professor of genetics at the university and the faculty member who is leading the project.
"People tend to be frightened of genetic tests because, historically, they have told you things that are not good news, such as your propensity for certain diseases. This will tell you that alcohol may have a more adverse effect on you if you go out drinking, or it can explain why you may feel ill after you consume dairy products."
Rine said all of the 1,000 or so incoming freshmen at UC-Berkeley's College of Letters and Sciences will receive a swab in the mail in the summer. Participation is voluntary and once the samples are returned, they'll be sent out to a private laboratory for testing. Results will be available in about a week, although students will only get their results if they attend Rine's public lecture Sept. 13.
To protect student confidentiality, everyone who submits a sample will be given an anonymous bar code. No one at the university will know which student has which bar code.
Still, at least one nonprofit, public interest group is calling for the university to suspend its project, saying it's an irresponsible way to teach students about genetic testing.
"This project could fuel common misperceptions about the importance of genetic information, and sets a bad precedent about the way genetic tests should be used," said Marcy Darnovsky, associate executive director of the Berkeley-based Center for Genetics and Society.
Dr. Mark Schlissel, dean of biological sciences and professor of immunology at UC-Berkeley, said he fully expected concerns about different aspects of the project and addressed them with the university's Committee for Protection of Human Subjects.
Among the concerns is whether genetic counseling will be available for the students once they learn their results. Schlissel said that because these genes chosen for the test are normal variants and extremely common in humans, there isn't any need for anyone to seek any immediate medical advice based on results of the tests. Plus, any student who has additional questions after the public lecture will be able to get it.
"They will be well-educated on what the implications of the data are," Rine said. "They will not be given this information in isolation."
Rine also acknowledged the possibility that some students will be found to have a gene that limits their ability to metabolize alcohol.