“Scientists found a gene that”: where to dispel myths about genetics

TSU and Goldsmiths, University of London have launched TAGS – a website where the latest achievements in genetics are presented in an accessible form. The information is published in English and Russian, and the authors are leading Russian and international scientists.

- Scientific articles are published every day, the amount of knowledge is enormous, but they do not reach the general public and remain elitist simply because people do not understand them without special knowledge. And our goal is to make this scientific knowledge accessible, - comments Maxim Likhanov, a junior research fellow at the Laboratory for Cognitive Investigations and Behavioural Genetics, coordinator of the Russian-language version of the site.

On the site, scientists comment on scientific articles on genetics, explaining the essence of research in understandable terms. There are also sections where basic terms are shown and where scientists answer questions. Resource coordinators collect interesting and reliable information and comment on articles in popular English newspapers (for example, the Daily Mail).

- Every day we see headlines like “Scientists have found a Gene for Aggressive Behavior”.  But the fact is that these are probabilistic estimates, not absolute ones. It simply means that if certain genetic and external conditions coincide, a person will show a tendency to aggression. But it does not mean that a person will be a hundred percent aggressive, - notes Maxim Likhanov.

The site is run by an international group of experts, including Fatos Selita, a barrister of England and Wales and New York City Attorney; Professor Yulia Kovas, head of the Laboratory for Cognitive Investigations and Behavioural Genetics; Sergey Malykh, a professor at the Psychological Institute of the Russian Academy of Education; Olga Bogdanova, Deputy Director of the International Center for Human Development; and Robert Chapman, a PhD student and coordinator of the English version; and others. The authors pay special attention to issues related to the ethical and legal aspects of genetics.

- Sequencing the genome is becoming cheaper, and potentially soon each of us will have a decoding of our own genome, but it's unclear what to do with this knowledge, - says Maxim Likhanov. - There are many ethical and legal questions, but still, no one knows how to solve them. For example, someone have been found to have a genetic disease: should relatives be informed that potentially they also could have it? Or should this personal information be kept in secret, not preventing the illness of relatives?

Another ethical issue, say the scientists, is who will store genetic data and who will have access to it: the government, doctors, insurance agencies, or anyone else. Since 2008, the US has an act prohibiting discrimination based on genetic information; Russia does not have such legislation yet. All these issues are also discussed on the TAGS website.

The site's experts are teachers of the interdisciplinary TSU Master's programme Human Development: Genetics, Neuroscience and Psychology. The Master’s students of this programme also take part in the development oresource. Maxim Likhanov, a coordinator of the site, invites other students, translators, lawyers, and potential authors to join the project. Those interested can write to the e-mail maximus.minimus@mail.ru.

The Accessible Genetics Consortium (TAGS) was founded in 2015 when TSU and Goldsmiths, University of London signed a collaboration agreement. The main goal of the consortium is to disseminate the available knowledge about genetics.