The Trouble with Adam Lanza's DNA

The Trouble with Adam Lanza's DNA

In a rare and now controversial investigation, scientists have been asked by Connecticut's medical examiner to study Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza's DNA — but the DNA community doesn't think that's such a good idea. Though details on the research are scant, University of Connecticut geneticists will apparently be looking for biological clues that might explain Lanza's extreme violent behavior. The New York Times's Gina Kolata reports that this undertaking is thought to be the first time scientists have studied the genome of a mass killer. Baylor College of Medicine's genetics professor Arthur Beaudet endorses the research, saying, "By studying genetic abnormalities we can learn more about conditions better and who is at risk." 

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But the ethical implications of singling out genetic mutations to explain violent behavior trouble many other scientists, who worry that such research might be held against innocent people who happen to share some of Lanza's genetic features. Harvard Medical School's Dr. Harold Bursztajn told ABC News that he's not sure what the U. Conn geneticists will "even be looking for at this point," considering how thorny and full of false positives the link between genetic markers and violence is. So far, the strongest evidence that genetics play a role in violent behavior comes out of research on MAOA, a gene that produces a substance called monoamine oxidase. Studies from the early '90s showed that abused children with certain variations of this gene had problems regulating their aggressive impulses. But University of Pennsylvania criminologist Adrian Raine questions how crucial MAOA is in determining who actually becomes violent. University of California San Francisco geneticist Robert Nussbaum also worries about the potential for genetic discrimination

It’s a shot in the dark that’s unlikely to show anything. If they find something associated with autism, I’m afraid that it might have the effect of stigmatizing autistic people. I can see a whole morass coming out of this.

Here are some of the many other geneticists who don't think meaningful conclusions can be drawn from such studies, fearing what the general public would make out of such information: 

No conclusions can be drawn from n=1, a prioriMT @mims: Geneticists to study the DNA of Adam Lanza…#protectresearch

— Ashley Ng (@drng) December 25, 2012

@dgmacarthur @edyong209 This is essentially celebrity genomics. Scientifically useless but amusing in some cases. Not amusing in this one.

— Joe Pickrell (@joe_pickrell) December 26, 2012

@joe_pickrell @dgmacarthur @edyong209 I agree, but while nobody cares about Ozzy's genome, what will people with this one? Test their kids?

— Nicolas Robine (@notSoJunkDNA) December 26, 2012

Many journalists who cover genetic research for a living also remain skeptical: 

Groan. Sequencing Adam Lanza's DNA will tell us what? Will prevent what? Seriously?

— Amy Maxmen (@amymaxmen) December 26, 2012

Crazy-misguided: Geneticists are going to study the DNA of Adam Lanza to look for clues about what was wrong with him.…

— Christopher Mims (@mims) December 25, 2012

Genomic analysis of Adam Lanza planned - the type of project that makes you question someone's grasp of genetics…

— Ed Yong(@edyong209) December 25, 2012