Action Potential

When it rains…it pours

I don’t know what it is about Jim Watson and my blog posting, but every time I mention him (as I did in my previous entry), something else pops up and I have to talk about him again. While doing my morning reading, I stumbled upon an entry from the DrugMonkey blog that was simply too good to pass up. Jim Watson is more mixed race than anyone thought, with 16% of his genes likely to have come from an African great-grandparent, as reported in the Sunday Times.


Since Dr. Watson’s genome is publicly available, this sort of analysis was easily conducted by deCODE Genetics, a company that specializes in assessing individual genetic risk factors. In addition to being 16% African, Dr. Watson also boasts a healthy 9% proportion of Asian-derived genes. The average person of European descent would have no more than 1% African genes. It would be surprising if Dr. Watson did not already know this, as the proposed relation would be close enough that he could have heard the story surrounding his descent from an older relative. If this were true, it would make his controversial comments all the more remarkable.

Let’s not forget that this article was also a blatant advertisement for deCODE’s services (see the chart of risk factors listed at the bottom of the article that is a complete add-on and has no bearing on the topic), but I’m more than happy to put up with the advertising for the information, in this case.

Inadvertently, deCODE solved another mystery as well. Dr. Watson has never attempted to hide his healthy fondness for the opposite sex, and with his theory proposing that higher melanin levels lead to a stronger libido, we now have a solid explanation for his strong impulses. Obviously, it’s in his genes.


Update: Dec. 12, 2007; 13:30 – Chris Gunter pointed me to a NY Times article on this subject in which a few more tiny details are revealed. The deCODE genetics CEO, Kari Stefansson, confirmed that all the company did was run the publicly-available data on Dr. Watson’s genome through their analysis programs, and provides a cautious caveat regarding the results. Dr Stefansson does sound pretty confident (and smug) with his parting shot, though.

On another note, the Times again fails to be upfront with their conflict of interest statements. Near the end of the article, Dr. George Church questions the accuracy of any of the current scanning and analytical services. This is bolstered by fancy sounding titles: “Professor of genetics at the Harvard Medical School and the director of the Center for Computational Genetics.” Oooooops!!! Forgot to add this one: co-founder of Knome, Inc., a private company offering genomic scanning and analytical services. It is in Dr. Church’s best interests to call into question the techniques and ethics of deCODE, his direct competitor, and position his company as the more responsible option for genomic testing. (Sigh), well, I guess I didn’t expect change overnight. When it rains…


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    Chris Gunter said:

    I find the wide reporting of this story quite disturbing, with no actual description of the analysis that was done. As far as I can tell, the original source is this blog: , with the title “file under hearsay”! But major newspapers and tons of blogs are reporting the story without checking any further. Shouldn’t we ask to see more primary data before we believe reports like this?

    I trust that deCODE knows how to do these analyses — they are absolutely leaders in the field — but how many markers were tested? How reliable are these markers? What is the frequency for each one in each population studied?

    If you don’t know the answers to these questions, you fall into the exact same trap as Watson himself, by making generalizations about race that are not based on solid data.

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    Noah Gray said:

    As you are well aware, this isn’t exactly rocket science. The HapMap project results were initially published 2 years ago in Nature, detailing regions of the genome (SNPs and microsatellites) that are particular and unique to certain populations. The follow-up was published (ironically) the day after Dr. Watson’s unfortunate remarks. Combine that with the expertise of deCODE, and one gets an idea of what was done to acquire this information.

    Dr. Watson made his personal sequence publicly available, so this sort of analysis (and more) was bound to come out at some point.

    The results, of course, have not been peer-reviewed, but unlike the recent discussion on this blog regarding the misuse of fMRI to determine the moods of swing voters, analysis of an individual’s sequenced genome can actually provide details of genetic descent. With this announcement, deCODE has placed their own competence and the potential power of genomic analysis on the line. I highly doubt that a well-respected, trusted company that has published so well, including several in NPG journals, would have taken such risks if they believed that these results could not be defended.

    I do certainly hope that deCODE will provide more details regarding the analysis (perhaps a link on their website would be nice; someone let me know if the details come out), but as long as one accepts the caveats (these findings simply represent a comparison between Dr. Watson’s specific genomic variation and the mapped variability of conglomerates “representative” of European, African and Asian descent in the same genomic regions), I don’t have too much of a problem with it. The exact numbers may vary a bit, but the qualitative result is likely to be upheld.

    Just to clarify for other readers, I wouldn’t read too much into the great-grandparent thing; that sort of genealogical analysis is obviously not revealed by haplotype and SNPs…

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    Rachel Eagle Reiter said:

    I think it is really great that Dr. Watson is 16% African American: he should take Pride in that 16% and speak positive words about African Americans, because by doing so he compliments himself [and me too]. I don’t look it, and I never had the genetic test for it—but because I am 25% Puerto Rican [I bet nobody cares about this—but whatever] that 25% is a mixture of European Spanish, Indian and African. Nice, huh? I think so. And if it were not for that 25%, I may not get the compliments I get (on my lips—they’re plump). But, all the bits about Watson being racist—I think it’s bogus: he’s not the kind of man to hate himself.

    ~Rachel Eagle Reiter