Exterior of deCODE Genetics, via mbl.is
You probably remember the anti-incest app that was garnering so much attention a few weeks ago–I briefly posted about it here, and then there were a ka-zill-ion more articles and news items of varying substance, humor, and factuality, posted all over the interweb about it. But the thing is, it’s not really an anti-incest app. Or at the very least, that’s not the whole story.
I had been planning to write a short article for The Reykjavík Grapevine about the student competition that deCODE Genetics was co-sponsoring with the University of Iceland to design an app for the Íslendingabók website. And then this incest app thing gained traction and suddenly, my little piece on student engineers and genealogy and quirky app designs grew in scope. I started by interviewing the three student engineers who designed the winning app (they work under the company name Sad Engineers, which I just love), and then also had a number of email exchanges with the students who designed the second place app as well. I spoke to one of the competition organizers at the university and thought that my piece was done, until I discovered that the people at deCODE knew I was writing a piece and wanted to contribute their own thoughts. Which I certainly had not been expecting.
By the time everything was said and done, I was invited to visit deCODE in person, have a quick tour, get a demonstration from one the main Íslendingabók website/program designers, and have a one-on-one meeting with Kári Stefansson…which is not something I would have ever dreamed that I’d be doing when I came to Iceland.
(If you are not familiar with who Kári Stefansson is, let me clarify that this is (super intimidating and) a Big Deal: see here, here, here…)
Let me state for the record that I am not remotely qualified to have a conversation about genetics with a world-famous neurologist and entrepreneur and that this whole experience was, metaphorically, characterized by me doggy paddling in the rapids. But I’m told that freelance journalism is often about learning to think quickly and trying to write successful articles about topics in which you
may definitely do not have a previous expertise. I think I managed this time, but wow.
Now, without further ado, the article itself, which is published in the current issue of The Reykjavík Grapevine. Here’s the beginning, to get you started:
What do any two random Icelanders have in common, genetically? If this sounds like the beginning of a bad knock-knock joke (or Jimmy Kimmel sketch), that’s probably because by now you’ve read at least some of the pun-heavy headlines popping up everywhere from Bloomberg Businessweek and NBC to the BBC, The Huffington Post and The Independent. A quick sampling if you haven’t: “App Aims to Keep Cousins from Kissing,” or “Icelanders Avoid Inbreeding Through Online Database.”
So then let’s get this out of the way early: two random Icelanders have about as much in common as second cousins, once removed, according to Dr. Kári Stefansson, CEO and co-founder of deCODE Genetics. That might sound like a lot, but accounting for the vast possibilities for genetic recombination in each generation, it really isn’t. Breaking it down in very, very simple terms—call it ‘genetics for literature students in five minutes’— Kári says, two Icelanders share a lot of DNA, but only in tiny bits and pieces.
If it seems strange that one of the world’s more prominent neurologists would be taking the time to parse basic genetics for a freelance journalist with a high school level understanding of DNA, then well, you can see just how far the joke has really gone.