GW: Do you mean personalized medicine or forensics?
have technologies which are relatively inexpensive.
PB: Personalized medicine. I’ve always thought that if you really believe that personalized medicine—which, to my mind, is medicine that reflects integrated knowledge of your own personal biology—if that’s a truly better medical paradigm than group-based medicine (or phenotypic medicine, if you like), then everyone should have access to it. And for everyone to have access to it, you’re going to have to
GW: Would you say the same thing about forensics? PB: Sure. As I said, I have a problem with selective databases in forensics. If you’re going to go down an identification rubric, the question is: is it fairer to have universal identification or selected groups, like convicted people or arrestees? If you allow that this is an important technology that
improves the justice system, then the question becomes: how do you best construct a system that optimizes that benefit? Fingerprinting, for routine identification, forensics, passports, driver’s licenses and other aspects of life as a citizen, is almost universal. How should that be constrained in the future? If a more accurate but also affordable technology becomes available, should we adopt it? I don’t think we’ve reached complete policy conclusions on questions like these yet.
Behold, the Isotope Technologies of biography and the UK Human Provenance Project By Jason Silverstein Sometime in March 2011, the UK Border Agency quietly abandoned their Human Provenance Project, which sought to uncover the “true” origins of African asylum seekers.1 The Border Agency proposed to “use DNA and isotope analysis of tissue from asylum seekers to evaluate their nationality and help decide who can”—and who cannot—cross the border.2 Following the announcement of the project, Science published an open letter from such noteworthy scientists as Alec Jeffreys which decried the pilot as “flawed,” “horrifying,” and “wildly premature.”3 The editors of Nature Biotechnology wrote that “the project urges us to consider the risks and implications of appropriating genomic data for discriminatory ends, such as border control.”4 Yet, as the Human Provenance Project was conducted, so it concluded, with few details released for public scrutiny. The Border Agency did not disclose Volume 24 Number 6
a single scientist or laboratory that conducted the tests. The reference dataset that served as the metric for “truth” remains confidential. No data or evaluation will see the light of day. The project that was to reveal the identities of asylum seekers has thoroughly concealed its own. In 2009, the UK Border Agency began the Human Provenance Project to calm anxieties over “nationality swapping,” a worry that East Africans would claim Somalia as their country of origin and receive an unjustly favorable asylum decision. The project’s agenda would be to determine the “truly” Somali—and, thus, the most worthy of resettlement—using DNA and isotope studies as ethnic proofs. For the DNA arm, the UK Border Agency used mitochondrial DNA, Y-chromosome, and SNP testing in order to infer ancestry and thus, supposedly, nationality.5 In this essay, I focus on the isotope analysis
dimension as I believe it brings into sharp relief the conflict between state identification and personal identity, and how technologies of biography often conceal as much as they reveal. Isotope analysis identifies differences in the occurrence of stable isotopes in order to trace chemical compounds or elements of interest. This methodology is especially useful in archaeology, ecology, and the environmental sciences, and has helped answer questions regarding food sources, prey choice, and chemical turnovers in soil. Recently, however, this technique has gained traction as a forensic tool. Most notably, isotope analysis was used in 2001 by the UK’s National Environment Research Council Isotope Geosciences Laboratory to trace a murdered boy’s torso back to Nigeria in what became known as the “Adam” case.6 That analysis was conducted on Adam’s bone. The UK Border Agency used GeneWatch 23