Wetenschap - 14 mei 2011

Promising start for science café

What would you do if you had the obesity gene? Despair and stuff yourself? Tricky questions aplenty during the successful launch of the science café in Loburg.

Should your future boss know about, for example, your genetic inability to cope with stress altogether? Would you, in fact, want to know this yourself? Why would you want to, or why not? These questions are only hypothetical at this moment. The state of the art is not yet so advanced that we can accurately find out what someone is made of from reading his genome.
Secret
No-one has a so-called genetic passport, a document in which the complete genetic code of oneself is established. No-one, that is, except Edwin Cuppen. This professor in human genetics (UMC Utrecht) knows exactly what he is like genetically. He does not keep his genetic passport a secret either. Cuppen has, for example, 86 percent more chance than you or I of getting rheumatoid arthritis.
Happiness gene
And yet, the professor is not dismayed by this knowledge. In absolute figures, there is just a four percent risk that he would actually get rheumatism. Moreover, he has the happiness gene, this cheerful professor reveals. It's bull's eye having Cuppen kick off the first science café in Wageningen. His enthusiasm is contagious, he has much to say and, above all, breezes through it all in flawless English.
English
This medium of communication makes Wageningen a first. While there are many science cafés in the Netherlands, none has ever been conducted entirely in English. With this, the science café targets especially international students and employees of Wageningen UR. Those present at the launch, to the satisfaction of the organizers, are quite representative of this group. 'A promising start', founder Dolf Weijers sums up the first café solidly. With more good things to come.
Manager
But what's the point of having a genetic passport? Does all such knowledge turn us into a sort of manager of our own lives? Philosopher Hub Zwart (Radboud University Nijmegen) thinks that there is still a long way to go. 'Ten years ago, when the human genome was charted for the first time, we thought that we were on the brink of a revolution. But that hasn't happened. Life seems to be more complex than we thought.'
Family
Cuppen agrees. Making such a genetic passport would soon be as easy as ABC. The time when it costs a thousand dollars is approaching. 'But the most difficult part is to interpret the code. That would be a mega-million-dollar task.' But it can be much cheaper, hints the geneticist. 'Look at your family.' The major hereditary information is all there for the picking. No genetic passport can now compete with that.
Know all
Do we need to know all that hereditary information? Philosopher Zwart indicates that this issue has been through a massive shift in thinking. Ten years ago, according to him, genetic screening provided information only on diseases which could be cured. The rest was kept under wraps. 'But this has changed. People nowadays want to know all.' Zwart also brings up, above all, the question whether genetic information actually differs from psychological information which can be obtained from various tests. 'Isn't this a question of habituation?'
The second session in June will be about future and current superpowers China and America. It aims to attract especially the Chinese in Wageningen.

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