JASONs Ponder Military Role in Gene Research

01.13.11 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The technology for sequencing human DNA is advancing so rapidly and the cost is dropping so quickly that the number of individuals whose DNA has been mapped is expected to grow “from hundreds of people (current) to millions of people (probably within three years),” according to a new report to the Pentagon (pdf) from the JASON defense science advisory panel.  The Defense Department should begin to take advantage of the advances in “personal genomics technology” by collecting genetic information on all military personnel, the panel advised.

The cost of sequencing complete human genomes has been falling by about a factor of 30 per year over the last six years, the JASONs said.  As a result, “it is now possible to order your personal genome sequenced today for a retail cost of under ~$20,000” compared to around $300 million a decade ago.  “This cost will likely fall to less than $1,000 by 2012, and to $100 by 2013.”

“At costs below $1,000 per genome, a number of intriguing applications of DNA sequencing become cost effective.  For example, researchers will have access to thousands or even millions of human genomes to seek correlations between genotypes [i.e. the genetic makeup of individuals] and phenotypes [i.e, the expression of genetic information in observable traits].”

Currently, the understanding of “the linkages between the genotypes of individuals and their phenotypes is limited.”  But “the explosion of available human genome sequence data will provide researchers from academia and industry with the genetic information necessary to conduct large-scale efforts to link genetic markers with human traits.”

For military purposes, it will be up to the Department of Defense “to determine which phenotypes… have special relevance to military performance and medical cost containment” and then presumably to select for those.  “These phenotypes might pertain to short- and long-term medical readiness, physical and medical performance, and response to drugs, vaccines, and various environmental exposures…. More specifically, one might wish to know about phenotypic responses to battlefield stress, including post-traumatic stress disorder, the ability to tolerate conditions of sleep deprivation, dehydration, or prolonged exposure to heat, cold, or high altitude, or the susceptibility to traumatic bone fracture, prolonged bleeding, or slow wound healing.”

“Both offensive and defensive military operations may be impacted by the applications of personal genomics technologies through enhancement of the health, readiness, and performance of military personnel.  It may be beneficial to know the genetic identities of an adversary and, conversely, to prevent an adversary from accessing the genetic identities of U.S. military personnel.”

What could possibly go wrong?  Quite a few things, actually.  Besides the risk of failing to maintain the privacy and security of genetic data, the data could be used in unethical ways or their significance could be misinterpreted.  “Acting on genotype information that is not convincingly linked to specific phenotypes could lead to erroneous and detrimental decision making,” the JASONs said.

In any case, the JASONs advised the Pentagon, “The DoD should establish policies that result in the collection of genotype and phenotype data…. The complete diploid genome sequence for all military personnel should be collected” along with other related information.

A copy of the JASON report was obtained by Secrecy News.  See “The $100 Genome: Implications for the DoD,” JASON Report No. JSR-10-100, December 2010.