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.
Berkeley’s program for the class of 2014 is the first mass genetic testing by a university. Jasper Rine, the professor of genetics who is leading the project, said it was designed to help students learn about personalized medicine and identify their own vulnerabilities.
“The history of medical genetics has been the history of finding bad things,” he said. “But in the future, I think nutritional genomics is probably going to be the sweet spot.”
The testing will be voluntary and confidential, with no one at Berkeley knowing which sample comes from which student.
Each freshman will get two bar code labels, one to put on the sample and one to keep. After the genotyping is complete, the results will be posted on a Web site using the bar code identification, so only the person who provided the DNA sample will know whose it is.
“In the decade ahead, the new genetics is going to penetrate everyday medical practice,” said Mark Schlissel, dean of biology at Berkeley. “We wanted to give students a sense of what’s coming, through genes that can provide them with useful information. I think it’s one of the best things we’ve done in years.”
But some bioethicists say the whole idea of genetic testing outside a medical setting is troubling.
“It’s a bad precedent to set up mass testing without some sort of counseling support,” said Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. “I’d rather people get their results in a medical setting, where they can ask questions about the error rate or the chances of passing it on to their children, and not just see it posted on some Web site.”
Dr. Schlissel said that he understood the concern about counseling but that he believed it applied mostly to testing for genetic diseases, not necessarily the relatively innocuous gene variants that Berkeley is looking for.
Berkeley, like many colleges, has for several years tried to create a common intellectual experience for new students by assigning a summer reading book. Last year, freshmen and transfer students in its College of Letters and Sciences received “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” By Michael Pollan.
But for the class of 2014, the program will be especially ambitious. After the genetic testing, the university will offer a campuswide lecture by Mr. Rine about the three genetic markers, along with other lectures and panels with philosophers, ethicists, biologists and statisticians exploring the benefits and risks of personal genomics.
There will also be a contest in which students who submit creative entries on the theme will have a chance to win further genetic testing from 23andMe, a private company that offers DNA profiling.
Berkeley has not yet chosen a company to analyze the DNA samples, but Dr. Schlissel said it was unlikely to be 23andMe. Estimates are $35,000 to $40,000 per 1,000 samples.
While the Berkeley professors see the gene testing as relatively harmless, others say that all genetic knowledge carries risks.
“They may think these are noncontroversial genes, but there’s nothing noncontroversial about alcohol on campus,” said George Annas, a bioethicist at the Boston University School of Public Health. “What if someone tests negative, and they don’t have the marker, so they think that means they can drink more? Like all genetic information, it’s potentially harmful.”