"Don't just disappear," cautions the Swiss DNA Bank's video, "store your life forever." Or at least a slightly used cotton swab and some really cute baby pictures.
The Swiss DNA Bank, brainchild of founding partner, Christoff Oschwald, is the latest immortality scheme in the history of modern civilization. Passing down the heirloom china and bobble head collection is no longer enough. "You want to be around as long as possible and we are here to help," asserts Swiss DNA Bank.
"Our mission is to store your digital and biological footprint on this planet securely, and forever," says the website -- and that's a mighty long time. "Swiss DNA Bank's secure servers and storage facilities are located in a former military vault in the Swiss Alps: one of the most secure locations on this earth. State-of-the-art secure Web access makes this service available worldwide ... We will never compromise on safety," promises the website, "we are here to preserve you, forever." Is this sort of like Elvis' Graceland, for the rest of us?
Although it's easy to understand the value and application of safely storing a digital photo album and video for all eternity (future generations can watch that vacation slide show!), I was a bit fuzzy on the importance of storing my DNA.
According to the Swiss DNA Bank, " Every person is composed of two parts: the body and the life experiences, his memories, his heart. At the end of our life, unfortunately, this is all lost ... Do so not only for yourself, but also for your children, grandchildren and great grandchildren and to make them remember you, know you and take advantage of your lifetime experiences."
Hmmm ... if the kids aren't listening now, are they really going to pay attention when I'm gone?
Furthermore, the Swiss DNA Bank suggests, "Saving your DNA sample can also be useful to prevent and cure genetic diseases." Wow. If that's true, it would almost be selfish and mean-spirited not to share a little saliva for posterity. I decided to consult experts.
I asked DNA expert, Dr. Ruth E. Ballard, PhD, Professor of Biological Sciences California State University Sacramento, and Dr. Theodore Kessis, PhD founder of Applied DNA Resources to explain what applications storing DNA might have now, and in the future.
I wondered if it would be possible to clone someone using only a small DNA sample? More importantly, could a sample of my DNA possibly save future generations from death and disease?
"Although there is no evidence that a human being has been cloned (yet)," said Ballard, " it is theoretically possible for it to be done from a buccal swab sample (swab taken from the inside of the mouth). Only a single cell is needed for organismal cloning and many other mammals have been cloned from a single cell."
"However," said Ballard, "if Swiss Bank plans to extract the DNA from the buccal swabs and store it as DNA (which is less expensive than storing it inside viable cells), then it could not be used for organismal cloning using current technologies. However, it could be used now (and in the future) to study the gene variants (alleles) carried by the person or any other DNA sequence of interest."
Dr. Kessis agreed. "It's highly unlikely that a person could be cloned from a mouth swab. Cells collected during such swabbings are exfoliated cells and as such not in the best shape for cloning. Blood (white blood cells) probably would be the best to store for the future."
Dr. Ballard said storing DNA could be helpful, however, in establishing a family's medical history. "If a genetic disease is running through a family, having DNA from many generations is helpful in tracking down the genes that control or influence the disease. Once the gene variants (alleles) that contribute to a disease have been identified, drugs/therapies can be developed for treating the disease."
Ballard said collecting a medical history from family members should be done in addition to storing DNA. "Collecting this information up front and then continuing to collect this information (as well as DNA) from descendants would be the best way to make their genetic bank medically useful for the future descendants of the original donors."
In addition, Ballard suggests recording environmental clues to further assist future generations. "It's also possible that storing a person's DNA could provide information about the inheritance of diseases influenced by environmental exposure," explained Ballard. "This field of study is called epigenetics. In this instance, it would be useful for Swiss Bank to collect information on the lifestyles (e.g. diet, occupation, where the person was raised, where the person lives) of the original DNA donors and to collect the DNA and lifestyle information from as many descendants as possible as the years go by."
There was no evidence of filling in medical history or lifestyle information when submitting a DNA sample to the Swiss DNA Bank, however, it seems like the kind of information clients might want to voluntarily include within their digital storage.
Dr. Kessis said, "If one is concerned about their potential for disease ... then that person can have their own DNA tested. Having a dead loved ones' DNA tested (say a parent or even a great grandparent) tells one very little they don't already potentially know about themselves. That said, testing a dead loved at some point in the future could tell you something about why they died. The most useful information gained from storing such DNA for the future would be to answer someone's question regarding whether or not they are related. This occasionally comes up in estate lawsuits. Having ones' DNA [eliminates] the need to dig someone up."
I asked Dr.Ballard how I would benefit right now, if my ancestors had stored their DNA for me inside the Swiss DNA Bank.
"Information from your great-great grandparents (if it was in Swiss Bank right now) could help you identify your ethnic origins," said Ballard, "It could also be used by scientists to study the inheritance patterns of diseases like diabetes, tendency to obesity, heart disease, many mental illnesses and to locate and study the gene variants that contribute to these diseases. However, having the medical and lifestyle histories of the original donors, as well as members of the intervening generations, would be needed to use the Bank for this latter purpose."
"All this being said," warned Ballard, "The Bank had better be darned secure! Insurance companies and many employers would love to get their hands on DNA banks of this kind. For example, an insurance company could use it to deny coverage to a person with a disease allele for breast cancer or an employer could use it to make decisions concerning whether to promote someone ("Well, this guy is going to get Alzheimer's before he's 55, so it's not worth training him to run the department."). In addition, DNA contains information on the ethnicity of an individual as well as information about his or her physical attributes. It doesn't take a lot of imagination to think up ways this kind of data could be misused if it got into the wrong hands."
The Swiss DNA Bank explains their security measures in detail on their website with the entire process sounding like something out of a James Bond film: layered infrastructure, encrypted data and a single use password and access card that generates a random new password each time it is used. And they hammer home the fact that the main data server and DNA samples are stored underground in a nuclear-proof shelter inside a mountain in the Swiss Alps. The website says, "Swiss DNA Bank's internal security management follows a military level security protocol. No single operator can access Swiss DNA Bank's data."
Time will tell whether a digital record in the Swiss Alps, a Facebook page that lives indefinitely, or a well-preserved photo album and a lock of hair are the best way to communicate our experiences to people we will never meet. In the meantime, the trick is to live a life worth storing.