Genetic Testing and the College Freshman

Gone are the days when a college student’s first exposure to genetics came after the first day of school, in a biology class.

U.C. Berkeley is offering (or should I say “offering”) genetic testing to a few thousand freshmen this year.

Here’s the story, by Tamar Lewin, in the New York Times: College Bound, DNA Swab in Hand

Instead of the usual required summer-reading book, this year’s incoming freshmen at the University of California, Berkeley, will get something quite different: a cotton swab on which they can, if they choose, send in a DNA sample.

The university said it would analyze the samples, from inside students’ cheeks, for three genes that help regulate the ability to metabolize alcohol, lactose and folates.


Those genes were chosen not because they indicate serious health risks but because students with certain genetic markers may be able to lead healthier lives by drinking less, avoiding dairy products or eating more leafy green vegetables.

This is bound to raise concerns. Yes, the testing is voluntary. But the risk is that many students won’t read the fine print, and will worry (perhaps irrationally) that failure to comply will be held against them. And, as with all genetic tests, there’s the risk that students will misunderstand the results. Questions are also bound to arise about whether students will understand the future uses to which their DNA samples (or merely their data) will be put.

As economist Tyler Cowen put it, “Don’t be surprised if this is soon canceled.”


About Chris MacDonald

I'm a philosopher who teaches at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto, Canada. Most of my scholarly research is on business ethics and healthcare ethics.
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1 Response to Genetic Testing and the College Freshman

  1. Pingback: Berkeley Backs Down on Gene Tests for Students | Biotech Ethics

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