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Talking back

A science blog, sans blague

Are Delta-FosB, or 5-HTT the Obama Genes?

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The Atlantic featured a captivating fantasy in its November issue about a scenario to assassinate the U.S. president in 2016 by using a bioweapon specifically tailored to his genetic makeup—a virus that targeted the commander in chief and no one else.

A great plot for a Hollywood thriller. But will we really see four years from now an engineered pathogen that could home in on just one person's DNA, a lethal microbe that could be transmitted from person to person by a sneeze?

The authors, including "genomic futurist" Andrew Hessel and cybercrime expert Marc Goodman, both faculty at Ray Kurzweil's Singularity University, acknowledge that the plausibility of a hit on the president by the time of the next election might be reaching a bit.

A personal gene bomb monogrammed for Barack Obama is still beyond the technical acumen of the best genetic engineers. But there is one good use beyond the cloaks and daggers to which the president's genes might eventually be put. As Obama begins his second term next week, he has begun to contemplate his historical legacy. For his third act—that is, once he leaves office—he might consider extending that legacy further by undertaking a whole genome scan.

Obama's genome, as much as that of anyone alive, might help a bit in the long-running search for genes associated with emotional and psychological resilience. Anyone who runs for president and gets the nomination has to display a measure of mental toughness, and so might carry a set of such genes. Romney was a toughie too—recall the first debate—but he was also to the manner born, doing what was expected for someone of his breeding. Obama is different. As a child, no one was handicapping "Barry" as presidential material, the guy who put in his high school yearbook a thank you to his pot dealer—and who emerged from a childhood (absent a father and sometimes a mother) that might have left others with more than just transient trauma. From the standpoint of human resilience studies, Obama is an extraordinary specimen.

The genetic analysis might, for instance, look at Obama's Delta-FosB gene, 5-HTT or a slew of other genes, particular versions of which are purported to provide protection against life's stressors. Behavioral genetics has always had to confront conflicting findings in which one study finds a hint of an effect for a trait like psychological resilience, whereas the next one finds nothing. An Obama gene test might furnish one of the strongest data points gathered to date. Of course, most statisticians would be duly unimpressed. Even a presidential genome is just one data point, an "n" of one, as they would say. But in a field where replication of results always remain elusive, an Obama gene scan might be as good as it gets right now in the search for the biological underpinnings of what allows some people to roll with the hardest of punches

Source: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

 

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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