What Ozzy Osbourne teaches us about genome analysis


You may have heard back in July that Osbourne was set to become one of a small handful of humans who have had their entire genome sequenced and studied. Now, we're starting to hear a little about what researchers found in Ozzy's genes. Scientific American had an interview today with the founder and the research director of Knome, Inc., the company that did the data analysis.

Tomorrow, Ozzy, himself, will be mumbling incoherently about his genome at TEDMED.

Partly, people are excited about this simply because it's a story about a famous person doing something we might like to do, but can't. And, more importantly, it's kind of about spying on a famous person. But is there something useful going on here? Does this rise above the level of futuristic paparazzi photo?

Well, maybe.

For one thing, it turns out to be a fascinating look at how shared symptoms don't always have the same cause. Ozzy Osbourne suffers from tremors similar to those of a person with Parkinson's Disease. But, from the Scientific American interview, it sounds like he doesn't actually have Parkinson's, itself. And, for that matter, there doesn't seem to be a clear genetic cause for his tremors, at all. That's interesting. And a good reminder that what happens to our bodies is often a lot more complicated than anything revealed in a genetic test.

Another good lesson to come out of this: A reminder that the science of reading and gathering information from the genome is still very, very young. The people from Knome, Inc. talk a lot about usual variations in Osbourne's genome, centered around nervous system control and alcohol metabolism. But then, they make a key point—there's just not that much data to compare him to. "Like everyone," they say, "Ozzy carries several hundred thousand variants that have never been seen by scientists."

That's very cool for the scientists. But it really drives home the point that we are, essentially, talking about a field that's akin to the early days of natural history, when gentlemen researchers were just grabbing every sample creature they could get their hands on, shipping it back to England and trying to fit it into some kind of context. It's a thrilling time, full of exploration and discovery. But it means that, when you see your first platypus, you have no earthly idea what that platypus means. Is it a deformed duck? Is it a hoax? How rare a creature is it? Any answer you can come up with is just guess work until you've tracked down a lot more data points.

In other words—get excited about the data points. But take the analysis with a grain of salt, at this point. Ozzy Osbourne is only our first platypus.

Scientific American: Ozzy Osbourne's Genome Reveals Some Neanderthal Lineage