The temple of Zeus

“What do you say, boys? Three different kinds of wings, three different kinds of dudes.” Carlin Nicholson looks at the platter of chicken wings with only one of each flavor remaining for him and bandmates Rob Drake and Neil Quin. (Mike O’Brien is well into his own personal serving of fish and chips.) “See how easy we do this?” Carlin explains in a satisfied tone. “This is Zeus.”

Of course, things haven’t always been this simple for the group, including the process of naming the band. As Nicholson recounts, “It started off with Juice, then Zeus’ Juices, then Zeused … It came from a joke.” Just like everything else about Zeus, the name developed through natural evolution, without a real plan. Just look at how the members came together: O’Brien and Nicholson bonded in high school over their common interests in music and mayonnaise on fries. With Nicholson’s brother and another friend, they formed their first band together, the 6ixty 8ights. After some time apart playing with different people, the two rejoined about two and a half years ago.

In Zeus’s first incarnation, Nicholson and O’Brien opened for Peter Elkas with a couple guys from the Golden Dogs. Then local mainstay Jason Collett asked Zeus to tour with him. Nicholson and O’Brien recruited Paso Mino, Neil Quin, and Rob Drake (with whom Nicholson had always wanted to play).

“In the same conversation I asked Neil to come and live with me and join the band,” Nicholson recalls, reacting to the spicy kick of his Bollywood-flavored chicken wings. “Musically and life-wise, it was very consistent for both of us.”

Quin interjects, “And if he didn’t give me the place, I would have had to move in with my mom, which would have been cool, but not as cool.”

O’Brien tries to explain the strength of the current lineup in a different way. “It’s kind of like we were building a rocket, and then when Quin joined the band, it was like adding that final rocket booster cylinder. And then—” Quin makes a child-like exploding sound using both his mouth and his body. With a chicken wing still in his mouth, he backtracks. “I have Soviet propulsion techniques.”
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In addition to rockets, the guys of Zeus also know a thing or two about songwriting—and it shows. Their full-length debut, Say Us, released on Feb. 24, is getting deservedly solid reviews and acclaim; the 12-track album does not have a single weak spot. From first track “How Does it Feel?” to “The Renegade” (Nicholson’s favorite at the moment) through first single “Marching Through Your Head,” the album is an explosive mix of different musical styles.

The band is clearly influenced by the likes of The Kinks, The Zombies, and The Beach Boys, as well as more recent music like Beck, The Flaming Lips, and Michael Jackson—and they readily admit to loving all of these. From the classic rock and roll sounds of The Beatles to new age and alt-rock, their sound combines a wild variety of genres and comes off sounding very fresh.

O’Brien doesn’t necessarily find this diversity so surprising. “It’s rock and roll man,” he says confidently. “Rock and roll has always been about pulling from country, blues, soul, and jazz—and whatever else is around you.”

The album is full of positive energy, and not by accident. As O’Brien explains, “We’re happy about the record—we really gruelled over it. We decided there was no better time to be ruthless in what we wanted to hear, and we knew we were going to fight until we got it to sound the way we wanted it to sound.”

“It’s whatever gives you chills when you’re playing it, both musically and lyrically,” Quin says, in response to my question of what inspires the band. “It’s whatever makes you step back and go ‘whoa.’”

Nicholson opts for another explanation. “For a lot of songwriters, it is an act of necessity. It’s sort of like if you can write songs, then you have to. You need to get it out. It sounds a bit cheesy, but when you sing a song, you’re telling a secret to a room full of people that you’ve never met, and that’s a really releasing way to get stuff off your mind. It’s exhilarating to do that.”

“As far as the success of the band, who knows? You can always get bigger,” Nicholson says, and all four of them simultaneously look up to ponder. Then five seconds later he corrects himself, “Unless you’re Queen. Or, like, Josh Groban, or someone like that.”

Zeus plays Lee’s Palace as part of Canadian Music Week on March 10. Look out for more CMW 2010 coverage in upcoming issues of The Varsity.

The Pan-Am panhandle

Toronto and UTSC leaders took questions from students on the Pan American sports facility levy on Wednesday, March 3, at a town hall organized by the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union. This levy would account for students’ contribution to the athletics facility that could host the 2015 Pan Am games. The referendum runs from March 17-19 in the UTSC Student Centre.

The panel taking students’ questions consisted of Toronto mayor David Miller, UTSC principal Franco Vaccarino, Malvern community coordinator Alex Dow, 2004 Olympic medallist Liz Warden, SCSU acting president Amir Bashir, and John Kapageridis, president of UTSC’s Athletics Association.

Panellists urged students to vote yes to the proposed levy. “It [presents] a truly transformative moment for UTSC,” said Vaccarino.

“I am not against the Pan Am games in Toronto. I’m just against students paying for it. They should find another way to fund [the construction],” said a fourth-year life science student.

Vaccarino said that a reduced levy is not an option for UTSC. “We looked at various financial models [and] with the parameters we had, this is the model that we got.”

Miller agreed. “U of T’s funding is contingent on the levy,” he said. “It cannot shrink.”
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Students campaigning against the levy argue that the athletics complex will go ahead despite a No vote. Members of “Vote No to a Legacy of Debt” referred to Varsity Stadium at St. George campus, which faced a similar referendum in 2002. Students voted no to a proposed $70 fee. The stadium was still constructed and students currently pay a levy of $18.

“A No vote means that students do not want to support the complex,” said Vacarrino. Richard McKergow, a member of the “Vote No” campaign who works with the Association of Part-time Undergraduate Students, noted that the wording on the referendum does not ask students whether they want the complex but whether they’re willing to pay the levy.

Joeita Gupta, spokesperson for the group No Games Toronto, asked why the costs should be placed on the students. Gupta is also VP external of APUS and sits on U of T’s Governing Council.

Vacarrino replied that his “commitment and ability to support this [complex] comes directly from students,” and that in his view, students want the complex. He did not give any direct reply as to why students are taking on the costs.

First-year student David Khachikyan said he was glad for better facilities. “I would vote yes because there is not even a swimming pool here. It sucks. Why should I have to go downtown and not [have access] here?” His response to the levy: “It’s not a lot of money.”

Asked what he had to say to students currently struggling to pay their tuition, Miller mentioned the summer jobs he took on to get through school. “I understand the challenges. I ask you to see the opportunities,” said Miller. He referred to his own experience as a student who had to “pave roads” and “clean the rich kids’ toilets” in the summer to get through college. “I’m not going to tell you how to afford it. That’s your choice.”

Several students mentioned that the panel consisted solely of those supporting the levy. Bashir commented that he had not been approached by any member of the opposing side wanting to hold a similar forum.

No Games Toronto will be holding an open forum, said Gupta and Oriel Varga, the executive director of APUS. They declined to mention who would be speaking at the forum. Gupta said she does not think SCSU will give their group space.

The bottom line

• If passed, the levy would amount to $40 per semester for full-time students and $8 for part-timers. This fee will increase by four per cent each year until 2014, when the facilities are scheduled to open. Fees will then go up to $140 per semester for full-time students and $28 for part-time students.

• The proposal has students contributing $30 million over a 25-year period, which is 80 per cent of UTSC’s share of the bill. The Pan Am venue will be located along Military Trail and Morningside Avenue as part of an expansion project that runs to $750 million.

• The new sports complex will include fitness and training facilities, two 50-metre competition pools, and a multi-sport field house. A Scarborough-Malvern Light
Rail Transit system is also included in the package.

• UTSC’s Athletics Association website states that the money students contribute through the levy up until their graduation will be credited toward an alumni membership at the complex. Alumni memberships currently cost $365 per year.

• International students planning to leave Canada after graduation will not have access to these facilities. UTSC principal Franco Vaccarino said these students will still benefit from the complex because when asked by employers about the university, the mention of UTSC will evoke images of a prestigious institution whose world class athletics complex hosted the Pan Am games.
The referendum runs from March 17-19 in the UTSC Student Centre.

Research, youth employment get funding bump in federal budget

The 2010 federal budget, released on Thursday, includes moderate funding increases for research, youth employment, promoting college and university education to low-income students, and First Nations schools.

Overall, $108 million is to be spent over three years to help youth gain skills and work experience. This includes a $30 million increase each for programs targeting at-risk youth and funding internships for recent graduates, both part of the Youth Employment Strategy program. Another $30 million will go towards improving governance and accountability in First Nations elementary and secondary education. A $20 million boost will go to the Pathways to Education program, which works to lower the high school dropout rate and increase access to post-secondary education.

Approximately $517 million will be devoted to research over the next two years, outstripping increases to government spending in virtually all other sectors. In his speech Thursday, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty highlighted the push for research.

“We are supporting innovation in our colleges and universities, research hospitals and other research institutions,” he said. “These investments will help create clusters of great new jobs on the frontiers of knowledge.”

A total of $32 million will go to the three major granting councils, with the majority going to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research ($16 million), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council ($13 million). The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council will pick up the remaining $3 million. A new grant gives the three councils $45 million over five years for post-doctoral fellows.

This increase comes in the wake of last year’s highly controversial budget, which stipulated cuts of $148 million to the granting councils over three years. These cuts, which far outstrip this year’s modest $32 million increase, have not been suspended.

Adam Awad, VP university affairs at the U of T Students’ Union, argued that the funding did not go far enough, especially for U of T students. “As a principle, we know that the amount of money available from the granting councils is not enough and it’s been hugely problematic,” he said, calling last year’s cuts regressive. “Particularly at U of T where the overriding goal is to increase graduate studies, but the funding has not been any more.”

Awad also pointed to a lack of increased funding for the Post-Secondary Student Support Program, which helps First Nations and Aboriginal students access post-secondary education, as a major problem for U of T students.

“Each band council is given a certain amount of money to allocate as they see fit, which has been capped at two per cent per year, whereas tuition fees have been increased across the country,” he said.

The budget got a better reaction from Lyse Huot, director of communications for the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. Huot cited the increased funding for post-doctoral fellows as a good sign.

“At the maturity of the program, that will fund about 40 fellowships annually, valued at about $70,000 each for two years,” she said.

With files from Jane Bao

Where the money goes

$1 billion: For post-secondary educational infrastructures for the 2010-2011 year, as stipulated in 2009 Budget

$600M: Of funding for the Canada Foundation for Innovation remains to be spent; details to be released in coming months

$75M: Increase to Genome Canada’s budget

$45M: To the three granting research councils over five years, to establish a new post-doctoral fellowship program

$16M: Canadian Institutes of Health Research

$13M: Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council

$3M: Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council

$8M: Indirect costs of research

Campus Stage: Observing Emotion turns frowns upside down

U of T’s Only Human Dance Collective presented Observing Emotion: A Study of Human Behaviour to an enthusiastic audience at the Betty Oliphant Theatre this weekend. The show comprised short dances reflecting the progression of the human cycle of emotions. The audience’s enthusiasm was a reflection of the liveliness of the dancers’ performances, resulting in a fun and entertaining evening of dance.

Observing Emotion opened with the spirited number “When the Cat’s Away…” which included most of the company’s dancers. The piece was a story of maids and butlers misbehaving when their master leaves, and quite suitably, it began with classical dance and music, then transitioned into the upbeat hip-hop “Shake Your Pom Pom.” Beginning with a feeling of innocence, the pieces evolved to describe joy, love, lost innocence, obsession, and finally, struggle. Within each of these categories were a number of minute-long dance pieces that interpreted the emotion differently. The sheer energy of this part of the show set the tone for the rest of the evening.

Alluding to the title, the performances offered a varied array of music, choreography, and dance forms. Most of the pieces were done in the lyrical style, but there were a number of strong modern pieces and a lovely Middle Eastern dance. Some of the most successful pieces were the hip-hop dances—these performers had clearly perfected their craft and danced with great passion.

The choreography was consistently diverse and creative, and both dancers and choreographers made excellent use of the theatre’s space and levels to depict the erratic nature of human emotion. While the set and costumes reflected the lower budget expected of a student dance group, the designers used their resources with flair. Cardboard, garbage bags, and fishnet stockings were all put to good use, creating a feeling of scrappiness that often enhanced the authentic feel of the performances.
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The standout piece was the final performance of the evening, “Ascend/Descend.” Dragi Dodevski and Susana Chwang, who both possessed strong technique and chemistry, beautifully performed to Bellini’s “Aria Casta Diva” a modern dance duet representing distress. The set and costumes for this piece were simple and elegant, drawing the audience’s focus completely to Genady Gavleshov’s dynamic choreography.

On the whole, the dance company worked very well—the performers were all very comfortable moving together, working off each other to create the passion and power present in each piece. The Only Human Dance Collective has a mandate to welcome all dancers regardless of experience, so naturally, technical abilities varied from dancer to dancer. However, all the students involved in Observing Emotion were certainly capable, and, more importantly, seemed to really enjoy performing.

While technique and physical abilities are important features in a dance performance, a dancer’s dynamic and passion are ultimately what makes a performance succeed. By creating a sense of community, the Only Human Dance Collective’s inclusive vibe was felt both within the performance and in the audience.—Ariel Lewis

Alice meets malice

The Mad Hatter’s tea party has never been anyone’s idea of a chic happening, but never has it looked more depressing than in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. The now 19-year-old Alice (Mia Wasikowska), returning after many years to the land she thought was only a dream, again stumbles onto the Hatter’s little never-ending get-together. But the glory days have evidently passed—next to an abandoned windmill, surrounded by fog and decaying plants and under a sky that seems perpetually overcast, the Hatter (Johnny Depp) presides over a massively unkempt table, with plates and cakes and teapots and cups scattered everywhere with no rhyme or reason. The March Hare is still there, strung out on caffeine and throwing plates like a junkie, while the Hatter himself appears blissfully unaware of what a pitiable sight the whole thing is. I never thought I’d say this, but perhaps Wonderland could benefit from gentrification.

I don’t think anyone other than Burton would think to film the Hatter’s tea party in quite the same way. Since most of Burton’s live action films have been adaptations of previously existing characters and stories, a lot of their appeal comes from seeing how a familiar icon will be uniquely Burtonized: Batman as gothic film noir, the legend of Sleepy Hollow as a rococo Hammer horror film, the “Mars Attacks!” trading cards as a big-budget Ed Wood film, and now Wonderland—actually “Underland,” as it turns out—with all of its fantastic flowers, mushrooms, and forests overgrown and messy like an abandoned nature preserve.

As always with Burton, Alice in Wonderland is fundamentally a visual experience. Wonderland is rendered almost entirely from CGI, and instead of Avatar-style photorealism, Burton’s surreal landscapes are like computer-rendered paintings. There is intriguing tension between Lewis Carroll’s candy-coloured vision and Burton’s gloomy sensibility: the film suggests Carroll’s Wonderland is in desperate need of a janitor and a paint job.

As much as Alice in Wonderland seems ideally bizarre material for Burton’s sensibilities, his heart has always been with the outcasts and the eccentrics, and he barely conceals his indifference for Alice herself. There’s nothing really wrong with Mia Wasikowska’s performance, but Alice is more of a reactive than proactive character—an audience surrogate who can view the oddball characters objectively, she never becomes more than a bland teenager. Burton is more interested in meandering around Wonderland, sketching little character portraits: the Red Queen, amusingly played by Helena Bonham Carter, is loud, quick-tempered, and thin-skinned; the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), is a parody of royalty, prissily holding up her arms and talking in a Glinda the Good Witch squeak. Burton is even interested in the Mad Hatter, though I admit I never really got a handle on Depp’s performance. He seems constructed from the spare parts of other Depp oddballs, with a level of self-awareness—and accent—that rotates between Jack Sparrow, Willy Wonka, and Ed Wood.
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The film is a delight in its early stretches when Burton’s Wonderland has real novelty, but it starts sagging at around the one-hour mark. There is no real emotional investment in these characters (Alice is a black hole, and even the best of the supporting characters are regarded with a certain cool detachment), and the plot machinations—from rescuing the Hatter from the Red Queen’s castle to Alice’s battle with the jabberwocky—are predictable. Maybe Burton would have been better off doing a straight remake of the 1951 animated film—he may have felt he was treading familiar ground, but it might have been exciting to see all the iconic set pieces as if for the first time through Burton’s eyes. Alice might have become more of a living, breathing character if we were re-introduced to her from the beginning, as opposed to several years after the story began. Certainly, the original film’s episodic structure better suits Burton, who has never been very interested in three-act narratives.

Still, there are a lot of images that I really will cherish: Helena Bonham Carter’s head balanced precariously over the Red Queen’s tiny animated body; her animal servants, including a snobby-looking fish that walks on its tail, and frog guards who stand upright with their chests out; the White Queen’s faceless army marching to the beat of Danny Elfman’s score; Tweedlee and Tweedledum, who look like two little balls of white dough with matching slacks, suspenders and striped shirts. As a film, Alice in Wonderland is a marvellous coffee table art book.

Alice in Wonderland is now in theatres.

Campus Stage: Student groups try to upstage each other at the 18th annual U of T Drama Festival


(Victoria College Dramatic Society)

While there’s little new that can be brought to the zombie genre, the creative minds behind Dead-End gave it their best shot. What seemed at first to be a standard zombie script was instead revealed to be a character-exploring buddy comedy. Taking refuge in an abandoned school, two young men (identified only as “Gun” and “No Gun”) are confronted by a lone zombie barring their most immediate escape route by standing at the end of a corridor and very gradually moving toward them.

Beginning as a debate over their next course of action, the play becomes an involved dialogue on the undead experience, Nazis, homophobia, and whether zombies are like jellyfish. The play is filled with knowing winks and nods—forays into controversial territory while skirting offensiveness with plenty of good humour. The dialogue was largely nonsensical, however, and sounded improvised—sometimes meandering into mere semantics. With a re-write and more solid performances, this could be an excellent piece. For now, it was barely more than your standard zom-com.—Rae Matthews
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A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Electric Chair

(St. Michael’s College)

Some projects blow their whole creative wad on their title. Attempting not to fall into that category, the kids from St. Michael’s College bit off a project more ambitious than they could chew. Humour, action, wit, pathos, mystery, suspense, political commentary, and moral ambiguity were all crammed into less than an hour’s running time. To their credit, these are all met with limited success, but the unwieldy effort becomes a bit of a mess.

The actors delivered their dialogue so quickly that it was almost unintelligible, presumably just to fit it all into the time allowed. Scene changes relied heavily on lighting effects, with the occasional failure leaving actors speaking in the dark. The large ensemble meant that some characters had little to do, and Katie Blundell’s “Mona Vandoum” ended up vamping it up in a tight dress for seemingly no reason other than to show off her nice legs.

That said, there are the occasional inspired moments and memorable lines that make this show rather entertaining—“Does everyone in this prison have a gun except me?” asked the warden during a particularly complicated hostage situation. The crew from St. Mike’s ought to be commended for their ambition, but not their execution.—RM

Forgive Us Our Trespasses

(Mississauga Campus)

Directed by Brandon Gillespie, Forgive Us Our Trespasses follows Father Patrick (Marcus Haccius) in his attempt to take over as the new pastor of a neighbourhood church. As he attempts to help his young, troubled churchgoers, the Father is forced to confront adversity. For the most part, the play was well-directed and delivered, but there were a few bumps along the way. At times, the storyline was a bit choppy, causing relationships between characters to be unclear. The play had a primarily serious tone, bringing forth issues of drug addiction and abuse, and attempts at comic relief were therefore sometimes ineffective. Although the dialogue and emotional attachment needed some polishing, the overall performance was effective.—Jessica Tomlinson

Civilization and its Dissed Contents

(St. Michael’s College)

Directed by Lucy Coren, this multi-dimensional play centres on a crime committed by the convoluted Dr. Freud (Matt Mcgrath) and the endeavour of Detective Innocent (Quintin Peirce) to solve the mystery. The play invited the audience inside the brain of Dr. Freud by introducing his Id (Brittany Picard), Ego (Natalia Pujalte), and Superego (Vanessa Rowlin). The stage direction and set design were masterfully incorporated into the piece, and the transitions between the two plots were carried out cleverly. Although certain characters were not developed to their full potential, and a few line deliveries were unclear, the cast was very talented and kept the audience laughing.—JT


(Mississauga Campus)

Ben Hayward and Ali Richardson’s production of Faith was simply excellent. The play centred on a rebellious teenager, Faith (Tanya Filipopolous), who casually narrated her life story and offered brief flashbacks to her adulterous relationship with local minister Dave (Owen Fawcett). The spot-lighting and stage direction worked hand-in-hand, and the intentional audience interaction gave a very conversational feel to the narration. Faith’s dialogue was both sarcastic and witty, and it was easy to relate to her eloquently delivered anecdotes about cheating parents, kids picking their nose in the ball-pit at McDonald’s, and other random thoughts. The play was inappropriately funny, and the crowd loved it.—JT

Life Boat

(New College Dramatic Society)

New College’s Life Boat featured five dissimilar men stranded and awaiting rescue after their boat went down. As heatstroke and frustration set in, revelations about their unfulfilling lives begin to emerge. Although much of the acting lacked pace and appeal, Christian Glas as the happy-go-lucky Frank held the piece together (and definitely deserved the Award of Merit for his performance at Saturday night’s award ceremony).—Ceara East

Tangent on a Tangent

(Trinity College Dramatic Society)

The Trinity College Dramatic Society followed the New College production with a very different, more light-hearted mood. The show follows two dorky middle-aged men as they attempt to convince a couple of unsuspecting foreign women that they are attending a spiritual new-age convention. Although the cast played their characters with conviction and sincerity, the stereotyping and gags were a little forced at times.—CE

Where the wild things are made

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Genomics gets personal

You’ve probably heard of “paternity testing” and “prenatal screening,” but how many people understand the terms “genotype” and “genomics”? While many people aren’t familiar with genetic terminology, chances are that at some point during your life you’ll find yourself discussing information that has been obtained from analyzing your genome.

Genomics is the study of genomes, the full set of hereditary information (or genes) present in an organism. As a field, genomics has grown exponentially over the past several decades. The bacteria Haemophilus influenzae was the first to be sequenced in 1995; however genomics became really exciting with the completion of the Human Genome Project, which set out to sequence the human genome using DNA taken from four anonymous donors.

Genomics is more than just genome sequencing. It also focuses on analyzing genetic data to determine how gene products function and interact, and which gene products are expressed in a given set of conditions. The Human Genome Project aimed to locate and identify the 20,000 to 25,000 nucleotide stretches of DNA in the genome. Initiated in 1990, the project published the complete human genome sequence in 2003.

The published sequence reflects the general arrangement of genes found in every human being. At the same time, it does not completely reflect the genomic sequence of individuals, because every organism (that is not a twin or clone) is genetically unique.

Enter the era of personal genomics. Personal genomics is all about determining and analyzing DNA sequences for individuals. This relatively new field is growing rapidly and has already found a number of applications, particularly in the area of genetic testing. Genetic testing refers to the process of examining and interpreting an individual’s DNA using bioinformatics tools. Police use genetic testing to identify suspects and victims at crime scenes as well as biological relationships in paternity tests. Doctors also perform genetic tests on newborns to screen for various genetically based disorders that can be treated before the disease progresses. In addition, some individuals screen themselves to determine whether there is a chance that their children will have a particular genetic disorder. Pre-natal diagnostics test whether a fetus has a genetic disorder, while other types of genetic testing can be performed to confirm a diagnosis of a disease, to identify individuals at risk for developing a particular disease or disorder, and how an individual may respond to certain chemicals or drugs.
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How does analyzing a genetic sequence provide information about disease susceptibility? Although humans share the same genes, individuals can possess different variations of each gene, called alleles. Variations in the sequence of a gene may lead to differences in the appearance and/or behaviour of a gene product. In the case of certain genes, possessing a particular variant has been found to correlate with an increased risk of developing a specific disease. Various genes have been linked to breast cancer, Burkitt’s lymphoma, leukemia, a hereditary form of retinoblastoma, as well as many other conditions. These linkages are determined by genome-wide association studies which look at large numbers of people with or without a particular disease. Researchers then analyze the DNA sequences to determine if those with the disease share common genetic features.

Genetic testing used to be mediated by professionals such as doctors and genetic counsellors. However, over the past few years a number of companies have sprung up that offer this service to anyone who can afford it. These direct-to-consumer (DTC) companies argue that every individual has the right to access their genetic information. All a person has to do is send in a DNA sample and pay up. The company then analyzes the sequence to provide information about the customer’s likelihood of developing certain diseases later in life. In addition, some companies make predictions about an individual’s reactions to certain drugs and offer other services. For example, one DTC company called 23andme helps customers “fill in” their family tree by comparing their genotype with those of other customers and assigning biological relationships based on genetic similarity. The company also claims it can map a client’s origins by determining which ethnicities his or her ancestors likely belonged to.

Those intrigued by these possibilities should keep in mind that costs range between $500 and $999, depending on the company and the information you want to obtain. But is it even worth it?

An article recently published in Nature suggests that predictions obtained from DTC companies should be taken with a grain of salt. The article compared the results obtained by two different DTC companies (Navigenics and 23andme) after testing five individuals for their susceptibility to 13 diseases. The study found that while the companies’ predictions matched perfectly for four of the diseases, the remaining seven diseases involved predictions with 50 per cent agreement or less between the two companies. Although the sample size in this example is small, it shows that there are flaws with DTC testing. The article points out that the genotypes determined by each company matched more than 99.7 per cent of the time, indicating that the raw data was quite accurate. In addition, DTC companies base their predictions on results obtained from scientific studies. The fact that predictions given by different companies do not always agree is not necessarily a sign of incompetence.

U of T researcher Dr. Stephen Scherer points out, “As with everything there are variances […] most of the data the DTC companies deliver is based on relative risks with lots of mathematics behind them. The data is mainly ‘grey’ and not black and white, but that is no different than most other medical data.”

The authors of the Nature article suggest that the differences in predictions reported by the two companies may partly lie in the fact that each test uses different disease markers. Diseases with a genetic basis are caused by a combination of genetic factors, and each company chooses the disease markers that it feels provide the best predictions. Part of the reason for the disparity in predictions likely arises from the information each company uses to establish its analyses. Hence, the problem likely lies in an imperfect understanding of the connection between genetic factors and disease.

Scherer suggests that the accuracy of DTC testing could be improved by taking into account other kinds of genetic variations. Currently, DTC companies only look at single-nucleotide variations called single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) in DNA sequences. However, there are many other kinds of genetic variations: nucleotide additions, deletions, sequence inversions, and duplications called structural variations. These are very common and can also increase an individual’s susceptibility to developing a particular disease. “The importance of structural variation to gene expression, protein structure, and chromosome stability is being increasingly recognized in normal development and disease,” says Scherer, who argues that structural variations are “gain[ing] more prominence in genomic medicine.”

Of course, the best way to obtain genetic data is to sequence the entire genome. For the most part, only genes thought to be linked to certain diseases are analyzed to determine disease susceptibility. This means that the sequences of all variants need to be known. Sequencing reveals all the variations present throughout the genome.

Since the Human Genome Project, DNA sequencing technology has improved significantly and the costs have also fallen dramatically. The complete sequence published at the end of the project in 2003 cost $2.3 billion, while the first individual’s genome sequence, published several years later, cost several million. In November 2009, Complete Genomics claimed to have sequenced a full genome for $1,700. The DTC company Knome offers full genome sequencing for $68,500. Promises abound to drive down the cost to $1,000 or less within the next few years. Some believe that in the near future it will be affordable to sequence the genome of every individual in the United States. Having such a wealth of information will undoubtedly be invaluable to researchers, but does having access to one’s genetic information have any impact on the individual?

Experts point out that predictive genetic testing is only valuable if it leads to behavioural change. For example, if an individual discovers that he has a higher risk of developing colon cancer, this might motivate him to get screened for it earlier. However, it is unlikely that an individual with a two per cent higher risk of obesity will significantly change his or her eating and exercise habits. And what about diseases like Huntington’s? A positive genetic test for this disease means that an individual will definitely have it later in life. Not everyone may want to know about their predispositions to certain illnesses.

This issue only scratches the surface of the huge number of ethical, practical, and legal issues that have arisen with the growth of personal genomics. Privacy is a primary concern when it comes to genomic information. Another common concern is that genetic data indicating a susceptibility to certain illnesses may lead to genetic discrimination by insurance companies. The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, passed in 2008 by U.S. Congress, protects individuals from such discrimination by health insurance companies and employers, but not life insurance companies.

Then there is the issue of DTC companies and what laws will regulate them from exploiting naive and uneducated consumers. Several European countries have resorted to banning DTC testing companies outright. There have been cases where DTC companies have been accused of making claims unsupported by scientific evidence. Commentaries on this issue express the need for greater transparency in the companies’ methods, increased consumer education, and government agencies to play some role in regulating their actions.

In addition, questions are being raised about the way genetic information is used in genomic research. In some studies, genetic samples are gathered from children with consent from their parents or guardians. Some argue that by the time these children reach the age of majority, they may decide that they do not want their genetic information to continue being used and should therefore be contacted and asked for further permission. Others argue that it is unrealistic to track down and contact every person whose DNA has been sampled.

In other cases, research may require linking genomic information with medical records. Harvard lecturer Patrick Taylor claims that seeking consent when it comes to using personal information for research will result in biased samples that pose a huge barrier to carrying out effective research. Nevertheless, in either debate, there is general agreement about the need to protect privacy, whether or not consent is given.

These heated debates hint that current regulations used for controlling the use and accessibility of genomic information are inadequate and will have to be rethought as the personal, economic, and political ramifications of personal genomics become more evident.

The Human Genome Project provides a glimpse into a possible future in which people are at ease with accessing and sharing their genomic data, where genetic testing and full genome sequencing is easily accessible and allows individuals to play a more prominent role in making decisions regarding lifestyle and health. This may also be a future for which we are not prepared, where genetic data is exploited and used by employers to discriminate between potential employees, or by DTC companies who make unreasonable promises to uneducated consumers.

Whether we are prepared for it or not, personal genomics seems to be the way of the future, and that future is coming fast.