The Shiny–and Potentially Dangerous—New Tool for Predicting Human Behavior
[Editor's Note: This essay is in response to our current Big Question, which we posed to experts with different perspectives: "How should DNA tests for intelligence be used, if at all, by parents and educators?"]
Imagine a world in which pregnant women could go to the doctor and obtain a simple inexpensive genetic test of their unborn child that would allow them to predict how tall he or she would eventually be. The test might also tell them the child's risk for high blood pressure or heart disease.
Can we use DNA not to understand, but to predict who is going to be intelligent or extraverted or mentally ill?
Even more remarkable -- and more dangerous -- the test might predict how intelligent the child would be, or how far he or she could be expected to go in school. Or heading further out, it might predict whether he or she will be an alcoholic or a teetotaler, or straight or gay, or… you get the idea. Is this really possible? If it is, would it be a good idea? Answering these questions requires some background in a scientific field called behavior genetics.
Differences in human behavior -- intelligence, personality, mental illness, pretty much everything -- are related to genetic differences among people. Scientists have known this for 150 years, ever since Darwin's half-cousin Francis Galton first applied Shakespeare's phrase, "Nature and Nurture" to the scientific investigation of human differences. We knew about the heritability of behavior before Mendel's laws of genetics had been re-discovered at the end of the last century, and long before the structure of DNA was discovered in the 1950s. How could discoveries about genetics be made before a science of genetics even existed?
The answer is that scientists developed clever research designs that allowed them to make inferences about genetics in the absence of biological knowledge about DNA. The best-known is the twin study: identical twins are essentially clones, sharing 100 percent of their DNA, while fraternal twins are essentially siblings, sharing half. To the extent that identical twins are more similar for some trait than fraternal twins, one can infer that heredity is playing a role. Adoption studies are even more straightforward. Is the personality of an adopted child more like the biological parents she has never seen, or the adoptive parents who raised her?
Twin and adoption studies played an important role in establishing beyond any reasonable doubt that genetic differences play a role in the development of differences in behavior, but they told us very little about how the genetics of behavior actually worked. When the human genome was finally sequenced in the early 2000s, and it became easier and cheaper to obtain actual DNA from large samples of people, scientists anticipated that we would soon find the genes for intelligence, mental illness, and all the other behaviors that were known to be "heritable" in a general way.
But to everyone's amazement, the genes weren't there. It turned out that there are thousands of genes related to any given behavior, so many that they can't be counted, and each one of them has such a tiny effect that it can't be tied to meaningful biological processes. The whole scientific enterprise of understanding the genetics of behavior seemed ready to collapse, until it was rescued -- sort of -- by a new method called polygenic scores, PGS for short. Polygenic scores abandon the old task of finding the genes for complex human behavior, replacing it with black-box prediction: can we use DNA not to understand, but to predict who is going to be intelligent or extraverted or mentally ill?
Prediction from observing parents works better, and is far easier and cheaper, than anything we can do with DNA.
PGS are the shiny new toy of human genetics. From a technological standpoint they are truly amazing, and they are useful for some scientific applications that don't involve making decisions about individual people. We can obtain DNA from thousands of people, estimate the tiny relationships between individual bits of DNA and any outcome we want — height or weight or cardiac disease or IQ — and then add all those tiny effects together into a single bell-shaped score that can predict the outcome of interest. In theory, we could do this from the moment of conception.
Polygenic scores for height already work pretty well. Physicians are debating whether the PGS for heart disease are robust enough to be used in the clinic. For some behavioral traits-- the most data exist for educational attainment -- they work well enough to be scientifically interesting, if not practically useful. For traits like personality or sexual orientation, the prediction is statistically significant but nowhere close to practically meaningful. No one knows how much better any of these predictions are likely to get.
Without a doubt, PGS are an amazing feat of genomic technology, but the task they accomplish is something scientists have been able to do for a long time, and in fact it is something that our grandparents could have done pretty well. PGS are basically a new way to predict a trait in an individual by using the same trait in the individual's parents — a way of observing that the acorn doesn't fall far from the tree.
The children of tall people tend to be tall. Children of excellent athletes are athletic; children of smart people are smart; children of people with heart disease are at risk, themselves. Not every time, of course, but that is how imperfect prediction works: children of tall parents vary in their height like anyone else, but on average they are taller than the rest of us. Prediction from observing parents works better, and is far easier and cheaper, than anything we can do with DNA.
But wait a minute. Prediction from parents isn't strictly genetic. Smart parents not only pass on their genes to their kids, but they also raise them. Smart families are privileged in thousands of ways — they make more money and can send their kids to better schools. The same is true for PGS.
The ability of a genetic score to predict educational attainment depends not only on examining the relationship between certain genes and how far people go in school, but also on every personal and social characteristic that helps or hinders education: wealth, status, discrimination, you name it. The bottom line is that for any kind of prediction of human behavior, separation of genetic from environmental prediction is very difficult; ultimately it isn't possible.
Still, experts are already discussing how to use PGS to make predictions for children, and even for embryos.
This is a reminder that we really have no idea why either parents or PGS predict as well or as poorly as they do. It is easy to imagine that a PGS for educational attainment works because it is summarizing genes that code for efficient neurological development, bigger brains, and swifter problem solving, but we really don't know that. PGS could work because they are associated with being rich, or being motivated, or having light skin. It's the same for predicting from parents. We just don't know.
Still, experts are already discussing how to use PGS to make predictions for children, and even for embryos.
For example, maybe couples could fertilize multiple embryos in vitro, test their DNA, and select the one with the "best" PGS on some trait. This would be a bad idea for a lot of reasons. Such scores aren't effective enough to be very useful to parents, and to the extent they are effective, it is very difficult to know what other traits might be selected for when parents try to prioritize intelligence or attractiveness. People will no doubt try it anyway, and as a matter of reproductive freedom I can't think of any way to stop them. Fortunately, the practice probably won't have any great impact one way or another.
That brings us to the ethics of PGS, particularly in the schools. Imagine that when a child enrolls in a public school, an IQ test is given to her biological parents. Children with low-IQ parents are statistically more likely to have low IQs themselves, so they could be assigned to less demanding classrooms or vocational programs. Hopefully we agree that this would be unethical, but let's think through why.
First of all, it would be unethical because we don't know why the parents have low IQs, or why their IQs predict their children's. The parents could be from a marginalized ethnic group, recognizable by their skin color and passed on genetically to their children, so discriminating based on a parent's IQ would just be a proxy for discriminating based on skin color. Such a system would be no more than a social scientific gloss on an old-fashioned program for perpetuating economic and cognitive privilege via the educational system.
People deserve to be judged on the basis of their own behavior, not a genetic test.
Assigning children to classrooms based on genetic testing would be no different, although it would have the slight ethical advantage of being less effective. The PGS for educational attainment could reflect brain-efficiency, but it could also depend on skin color, or economic advantage, or personality, or literally anything that is related in any way to economic success. Privileging kids with higher genetic scores would be no different than privileging children with smart parents. If schools really believe that a psychological trait like IQ is important for school placement, the sensible thing is to administer the children an actual IQ test – not a genetic test.
IQ testing has its own issues, of course, but at least it involves making decisions about individuals based on their own observable characteristics, rather than on characteristics of their parents or their genome. If decisions must be made, if resources must be apportioned, people deserve to be judged on the basis of their own behavior, the content of their character. Since it can't be denied that people differ in all sorts of relevant ways, this is what it means for all people to be created equal.
[Editor's Note: Read another perspective in the series here.]
Tom Oxley is building what he calls a “natural highway into the brain” that lets people use their minds to control their phones and computers. The device, called the Stentrode, could improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of people living with spinal cord paralysis, ALS and other neurodegenerative diseases.
Leaps.org talked with Dr. Oxley for today’s podcast. A fascinating thing about the Stentrode is that it works very differently from other “brain computer interfaces” you may be familiar with, like Elon Musk’s Neuralink. Some BCIs are implanted by surgeons directly into a person’s brain, but the Stentrode is much less invasive. Dr. Oxley’s company, Synchron, opts for a “natural” approach, using stents in blood vessels to access the brain. This offers some major advantages to the handful of people who’ve already started to use the Stentrode.
The audio of this episode improves about 10 minutes in. (There was a minor headset issue early on, but everything is audible throughout.) Dr. Oxley’s work creates game-changing opportunities for patients desperate for new options. His take on where we're headed with BCIs is must listening for anyone who cares about the future of health and technology.
In our conversation, Dr. Oxley talks about “Bluetooth brain”; the critical role of AI in the present and future of BCIs; how BCIs compare to voice command technology; regulatory frameworks for revolutionary technologies; specific people with paralysis who’ve been able to regain some independence thanks to the Stentrode; what it means to be a neurointerventionist; how to scale BCIs for more people to use them; the risks of BCIs malfunctioning; organic implants; and how BCIs help us understand the brain, among other topics.
Dr. Oxley received his PhD in neuro engineering from the University of Melbourne in Australia. He is the founding CEO of Synchron and an associate professor and the head of the vascular bionics laboratory at the University of Melbourne. He’s also a clinical instructor in the Deepartment of Neurosurgery at Mount Sinai Hospital. Dr. Oxley has completed more than 1,600 endovascular neurosurgical procedures on patients, including people with aneurysms and strokes, and has authored over 100 peer reviewed articles.
Synchron website - https://synchron.com/
Assessment of Safety of a Fully Implanted Endovascular Brain-Computer Interface for Severe Paralysis in 4 Patients (paper co-authored by Tom Oxley) - https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamaneurology/art...
More research related to Synchron's work - https://synchron.com/research
Tom Oxley on LinkedIn - https://www.linkedin.com/in/tomoxl
Tom Oxley on Twitter - https://twitter.com/tomoxl?lang=en
Tom Oxley website - https://tomoxl.com/
Novel brain implant helps paralyzed woman speak using digital avatar - https://engineering.berkeley.edu/news/2023/08/novel-brain-implant-helps-paralyzed-woman-speak-using-a-digital-avatar/
Edward Chang lab - https://changlab.ucsf.edu/
BCIs convert brain activity into text at 62 words per minute - https://med.stanford.edu/neurosurgery/news/2023/he...
Leaps.org: The Mind-Blowing Promise of Neural Implants - https://leaps.org/the-mind-blowing-promise-of-neural-implants/
For generations, the Indigenous Tjupan people of Australia enjoyed the sweet treat of honey made by honeypot ants. As a favorite pastime, entire families would go searching for the underground colonies, first spotting a worker ant and then tracing it to its home. The ants, which belong to the species called Camponotus inflatus, usually build their subterranean homes near the mulga trees, Acacia aneura. Having traced an ant to its tree, it would be the women who carefully dug a pit next to a colony, cautious not to destroy the entire structure. Once the ant chambers were exposed, the women would harvest a small amount to avoid devastating the colony’s stocks—and the family would share the treat.
The Tjupan people also knew that the honey had antimicrobial properties. “You could use it for a sore throat,” says Danny Ulrich, a member of the Tjupan nation. “You could also use it topically, on cuts and things like that.”
These hunts have become rarer, as many of the Tjupan people have moved away and, up until now, the exact antimicrobial properties of the ant honey remained unknown. But recently, scientists Andrew Dong and Kenya Fernandes from the University of Sydney, joined Ulrich, who runs the Honeypot Ants tours in Kalgoorlie, a city in Western Australia, on a honey-gathering expedition. Afterwards, they ran a series of experiments analyzing the honey’s antimicrobial activity—and confirmed that the Indigenous wisdom was true. The honey was effective against Staphylococcus aureus, a common pathogen responsible for sore throats, skin infections like boils and sores, and also sepsis, which can result in death. Moreover, the honey also worked against two species of fungi, Cryptococcus and Aspergillus, which can be pathogenic to humans, especially those with suppressed immune systems.
In the era of growing antibiotic resistance and the rising threat of pathogenic fungi, these findings may help scientists identify and make new antimicrobial compounds. “Natural products have been honed over thousands and millions of years by nature and evolution,” says Fernandes. “And some of them have complex and intricate properties that make them really important as potential new antibiotics. “
In an era of growing resistance to antibiotics and new threats of fungi infections, the latest findings about honeypot ants are helping scientists identify new antimicrobial drugs.
Bee honey is also known for its antimicrobial properties, but bees produce it very differently than the ants. Bees collect nectar from flowers, which they regurgitate at the hive and pack into the hexagonal honeycombs they build for storage. As they do so, they also add into the mix an enzyme called glucose oxidase produced by their glands. The enzyme converts atmospheric oxygen into hydrogen peroxide, a reactive molecule that destroys bacteria and acts as a natural preservative. After the bees pack the honey into the honeycombs, they fan it with their wings to evaporate the water. Once a honeycomb is full, the bees put a beeswax cover on it, where it stays well-preserved thanks to the enzymatic action, until the bees need it.
Less is known about the chemistry of ants’ honey-making. Similarly to bees, they collect nectar. They also collect the sweet sap of the mulga tree. Additionally, they also “milk” the aphids—small sap-sucking insects that live on the tree. When ants tickle the aphids with their antennae, the latter release a sweet substance, which the former also transfer to their colonies. That’s where the honey management difference becomes really pronounced. The ants don’t build any kind of structures to store their honey. Instead, they store it in themselves.
The workers feed their harvest to their fellow ants called repletes, stuffing them up to the point that their swollen bellies outgrow the ants themselves, looking like amber-colored honeypots—hence the name. Because of their size, repletes don’t move, but hang down from the chamber’s ceiling, acting as living feedstocks. When food becomes scarce, they regurgitate their reserves to their colony’s brethren. It’s not clear whether the repletes die afterwards or can be restuffed again. “That's a good question,” Dong says. “After they've been stretched, they can't really return to exactly the same shape.”
These replete ants are the “treat” the Tjupan women dug for. Once they saw the round-belly ants inside the chambers, they would reach in carefully and get a few scoops of them. “You see a lot of honeypot ants just hanging on the roof of the little openings,” says Ulrich’s mother, Edie Ulrich. The women would share the ants with family members who would eat them one by one. “They're very delicate,” shares Edie Ulrich—you have to take them out carefully, so they don’t accidentally pop and become a wasted resource. “Because you’d lose all this precious honey.”
Dong stumbled upon the honeypot ants phenomenon because he was interested in Indigenous foods and went on Ulrich’s tour. He quickly became fascinated with the insects and their role in the Indigenous culture. “The honeypot ants are culturally revered by the Indigenous people,” he says. Eventually he decided to test out the honey’s medicinal qualities.
The researchers were surprised to see that even the smallest, eight percent concentration of honey was able to arrest the growth of S. aureus.
To do this, the two scientists first diluted the ant honey with water. “We used something called doubling dilutions, which means that we made 32 percent dilutions, and then we halve that to 16 percent and then we half that to eight percent,” explains Fernandes. The goal was to obtain as much results as possible with the meager honey they had. “We had very, very little of the honeypot ant honey so we wanted to maximize the spectrum of results we can get without wasting too much of the sample.”
After that, the researchers grew different microbes inside a nutrient rich broth. They added the broth to the different honey dilutions and incubated the mixes for a day or two at the temperature favorable to the germs’ growth. If the resulting solution turned turbid, it was a sign that the bugs proliferated. If it stayed clear, it meant that the honey destroyed them. The researchers were surprised to see that even the smallest, eight percent concentration of honey was able to arrest the growth of S. aureus. “It was really quite amazing,” Fernandes says. “Eight milliliters of honey in 92 milliliters of water is a really tiny amount of honey compared to the amount of water.”
Similar to bee honey, the ants’ honey exhibited some peroxide antimicrobial activity, researchers found, but given how little peroxide was in the solution, they think the honey also kills germs by a different mechanism. “When we measured, we found that [the solution] did have some hydrogen peroxide, but it didn't have as much of it as we would expect based on how active it was,” Fernandes says. “Whether this hydrogen peroxide also comes from glucose oxidase or whether it's produced by another source, we don't really know,” she adds. The research team does have some hypotheses about the identity of this other germ-killing agent. “We think it is most likely some kind of antimicrobial peptide that is actually coming from the ant itself.”
The honey also has a very strong activity against the two types of fungi, Cryptococcus and Aspergillus. Both fungi are associated with trees and decaying leaves, as well as in the soils where ants live, so the insects likely have evolved some natural defense compounds, which end up inside the honey.
It wouldn’t be the first time when modern medicines take their origin from the natural world or from the indigenous people’s knowledge. The bark of the cinchona tree native to South America contains quinine, a substance that treats malaria. The Indigenous people of the Andes used the bark to quell fever and chills for generations, and when Europeans began to fall ill with malaria in the Amazon rainforest, they learned to use that medicine from the Andean people.
The wonder drug aspirin similarly takes its origin from a bark of a tree—in this case a willow.
Even some anticancer compounds originated from nature. A chemotherapy drug called Paclitaxel, was originally extracted from the Pacific yew trees, Taxus brevifolia. The samples of the Pacific yew bark were first collected in 1962 by researchers from the United States Department of Agriculture who were looking for natural compounds that might have anti-tumor activity. In December 1992, the FDA approved Paclitaxel (brand name Taxol) for the treatment of ovarian cancer and two years later for breast cancer.
In the era when the world is struggling to find new medicines fast enough to subvert a fungal or bacterial pandemic, these discoveries can pave the way to new therapeutics. “I think it's really important to listen to indigenous cultures and to take their knowledge because they have been using these sources for a really, really long time,” Fernandes says. Now we know it works, so science can elucidate the molecular mechanisms behind it, she adds. “And maybe it can even provide a lead for us to develop some kind of new treatments in the future.”
Lina Zeldovich has written about science, medicine and technology for Popular Science, Smithsonian, National Geographic, Scientific American, Reader’s Digest, the New York Times and other major national and international publications. A Columbia J-School alumna, she has won several awards for her stories, including the ASJA Crisis Coverage Award for Covid reporting, and has been a contributing editor at Nautilus Magazine. In 2021, Zeldovich released her first book, The Other Dark Matter, published by the University of Chicago Press, about the science and business of turning waste into wealth and health. You can find her on http://linazeldovich.com/ and @linazeldovich.