Carl Zimmer’s Cure for ‘Boring Genome Syndrome’

Carl Zimmer isn’t the only journalist for whom the gee-whiz veneer of genome sequencing has worn off. Photo: David Corcoran.

 

In October 2015, Carl Zimmer found himself in a peculiar predicament. He’d just gotten word from Illumina — the company he’d commissioned to sequence his genome — that his genetic readout didn’t raise any red flags. Although his clean bill of health was a personal relief, it also posed a professional problem: Zimmer had convinced the Boston-based health site STAT to cover the couple-thousand-dollar sequencing charge so he could write about it, and, well, it didn’t look as if he had much of a story, did it?

Fortunately, there was probably no one better suited than Carl Zimmer to spin his seemingly bland genetic data into narrative gold.

Zimmer is “a science journalist who really needs no introduction,” as Deborah Blum said in introducing him to the April 6 KSJ seminar on writing about genomes. Zimmer has authored several books, writes the New York Times “Matter” column, and frequently appears on shows like “Radiolab.” Since he has a new book about heredity in the works, Zimmer has been thinking a lot about genetics lately. But his reporting took a turn for the personal when he had his own genome sequenced.

By now, the genomes of tens of thousands of species have been sequenced, and transcribing the genetic instructions for a new organism is kind of like saying, “Oh, I discovered a new star,” Zimmer said. Still, as someone who was covering the biology beat when scientists first sequenced the genome of a cellular organism in 1995, Zimmer said it was kind of mind-blowing to think the procedure could be done on him. Unfortunately, the report Illumina delivered to Zimmer — which disclosed only whether it found any genetic variants with serious health effects — was pretty anticlimactic. He learned he was a carrier for two diseases that he hadn’t passed on to his children. “So that’s it. Done,” Zimmer said. “Now I’m wondering what the point of all this was.”

Genetic autobiographies, he said, have become something of a mini-genre in journalism: Writers get their genomes sequenced and then tell their (usually uneventful) tales. “What is it we’re looking for?” Zimmer said. “Really interesting, scary mutations? If you’re in good health, you probably won’t discover those.” As a result, journalism is suffering from what he calls “Boring Genome Syndrome,” and Zimmer was determined to find a cure. If humans have genomes that are four billion years in the making, “they can’t be boring,” he said. “They just can’t.”

Since Illumina’s report had barely scratched the surface of his genetic profile, Zimmer wanted some genome scientists to dig deeper and see what they could find. After securing his complete genome from Illumina, all 60 gigabytes’ worth on a hard drive, he let two dozen researchers have at it.

According to Zimmer, the scientists “had great fun” with this project, because they were so used to studying disembodied genomes, and his actually came with a name and a face. Their scrutiny yielded some new insights into Zimmer’s health, and his experience under the microscope yielded a three-part series on STAT titled “Game of Genomes.” “This is my stab at a treatment for Boring Genome Syndrome,” he said.

Zimmer hopes that people will eventually be able to look beyond the sheer novelty of genome sequencing, “because this is not just something that’s limited to things going on in laboratories,” he said. “This is more and more a part of our culture. This is a part of business. This is a part of the modern economy.”

Zimmer pointed to the movie “Assassin’s Creed” as a striking example of our culture’s fascination with genetic codes. He couldn’t contain an eye roll as he described the film’s plot, which involves the protagonist uncovering the memories of his 15th-century assassin ancestor embedded in his DNA. Even worse, Zimmer continued, there’s an “Assassin’s Creed Testing Bundle” for sale that promises to reveal if users have the so-called warrior gene — which was once erroneously used to explain aggression among the Maori people of New Zealand.

KSJ fellow Meera Subramanian asked Zimmer how science writers could help cultivate a media ecosystem in which accurate genetics news gets in front of the public, even if it’s less flashy than the Maori story. Zimmer suggested telling editors why they should be wary of pieces that definitively pin a genetic cause to a human condition. And when it comes to pitching stories that lack the “wow” factor of definitive answers, Zimmer recommended spinning scientific uncertainty as a positive: Thanks to complex genetic and environmental interactions, genetic risk for a condition does not equal fate. After all, Zimmer said, “everybody loves a happy story.”