Asimov on DNA Sequencing

I came across while reading through the Foundation series. This section is from “Forward the Foundation” which was written in 1992 when Asimov was 73 years old. All things considered I think it’s aged rather well, and provides an interesting perspective on genomics.

The background to the piece is that Seldon suspects that Wanda has telepathic abilities. In order to determine its genetic bases, and hopefully locate other telepaths he’s seeks out a “biophysicist” to sequence her genome. Seldon’s quest mirrors that of many individuals today seeking to have their genomes sequenced to gain some deep insight into their genetic makeup.

It was not an easy task to obtain a complete genome of Wanda. To begin with, the number of biophysicists equipped to handle the genome was small and those that existed were always busy.

Nor was it possible for Seldon to discuss his needs openly, in order to interest the biophysicists. It was absolutely essential, Seldon felt, that the true reason for his interest in Wanda’s mental powers be kept secret from all the Galaxy.

And if another difficulty was needed, it was the fact that the process was infernally expensive.

Seldon shook his head and said to Mian Endelecki, the biophysicist he was now consulting, “Why so expensive, Dr. Endelecki? I am not an expert in the field, but it is my distinct understanding that the process is completely computerized and that, once you have a scraping of skin cells, the genome can be completely built and analyzed in a matter of days.”

“That’s true. But having a deoxyribonucleic acid molecule stretching out for billions of nucleotides, with every puring and pyrimidine in its place, is the least of it; the very least of it, Professor Seldon. There is then the matter of studying each one and comparing it to some standard.

“Now, consider, in the first place, that although we have records of complete genomes, they represent a vanishingly small fraction of the number of genomes that exist, so that we don’t really know how standard they are.”

Seldon asked, “Why so few?”

“A number of reasons. The expense, for one thing. Few people are willing to spend the credits on it unless they have strong reason to think there is something wrong with their genome. And if they have no strong reason, they are reluctant to undergo analysis for fear they will find something wrong. Now, then, are you sure you want your granddaughter genomed?”

“Yes, I do. It is terribly important.”

“Why? Does she show signs of a metabolic anomaly?”

“No, she doesn’t. Rather the reverse–if I knew the antonym of anomaly.’ I consider her a most unusual person and I want to know just what it is that makes her unusual.”

“Unusual in what way?”

“Mentally, but it’s impossible for me to go into details, since I don’t entirely understand it. Maybe I will, once she is genomed.”

“How old is she?”

“Twelve. She’ll soon be thirteen.”

“In that case, I’ll need permission from her parents.”

Seldon cleared his throat. “That may be difficult to get. I’m her grandfather. Wouldn’t my permission be enough?”

“For me, certainly. But, you know, we’re talking about the law. I don’t wish to lose my license to practice.”

It was necessary for Seldon to approach Raych again. This, too, was difficult, as he protested once more that he and his wife, Manella, wanted Wanda to live a normal life of a normal girl. What if her genome did turn out to be abnormal? Would she be whisked away to be prodded and probed like a laboratory specimen? Would Hari, in his fanatical devotion to his Psychohistory Project, press Wanda into a life of all work and no play, shutting her off from other young people her age? But Seldon was insistent.

“Trust me, Raych. I would never do anything to harm Wanda. But this must be done. I need to know Wanda’s genome. If it is as I suspect it is, we may be on the verge of altering the course of psychohistory, of the future of the Galaxy itself!”

And so Raych was persuaded and somehow he obtained Manella’s consent, as well. And together, the three adults took Wanda to Dr. Endelecki’s office.

Mian Endelecki greeted them at the door. Her hair was a shining white, but her face showed no sign of age.

She looked at the girl, who walked in with a look of curiosity on her face but with no signs of apprehension or fear. She then turned her gaze to the three adults who had accompanied Wanda.

Dr. Endelecki said with a smile, “Mother, father, and grandfather–am I right?”

Seldon answered, “Absolutely right.”

Raych looked hang-dog and Manella, her face a little swollen and her eyes a little red, looked tired.

“Wanda,” began the doctor. “That is your name, isn’t it?”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Wanda in her clear voice.

“I’m going to tell you exactly what I’m going to do with you. You’re right-handed, I suppose.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Very well, then, I’ll spray a little patch on your left forearm with an anesthetic. It will just feel like a cool wind. Nothing else. I’ll then scrape a little skin from you just a tiny bit. There’ll be no pain, no blood, no mark afterward. When I’m done, I’ll spray a little disinfectant on it. The whole thing will take just a few minutes. Does that sound all right to you?”

“Sure,” said Wanda, as she held out her arm.

When it was over, Dr. Endelecki said, “I’ll put the scraping under the microscope, choose a decent cell, and put my computerized gene analyzer to work. It will mark off every last nucleotide, but there are billions of them. It will probably take the better part of a day. It’s all automatic, of course, so I won’t be sitting here watching it and there’s no point in your doing so, either.

“Once the genome is prepared, it will take an even longer time to analyze it. If you want a complete job, it may take a couple of weeks. That is why it’s so expensive a procedure. The work is hard and long. I’ll call you in when I have it.” She turned away, as if she had dismissed the family, and busied herself with the gleaming apparatus on the table in front of her.

Seldon said, “If you come across anything unusual, will you get in touch with me instantly? I mean, don’t wait for a complete analysis if you find something in the first hour. Don’t make me wait.”

“The chances of finding anything in the first hour are very slim, but I promise you, Professor Seldon that I will be in touch with you at once if it seems necessary.”

Manella snatched Wanda’s arm and led her off triumphantly. Raych followed, feet dragging. Seldon lingered and said, “This is more important than you know, Dr. Endelecki.”

Dr. Endelecki nodded as she said, “Whatever the reason, Professor, I’ll do my best.”

Seldon left, his lips pressed tightly together. Why he had thought that somehow the genome would be worked out in five minutes and that a glance at it in another five minutes would give him an answer, he did not know. Now he would have to wait for weeks, without knowing what would be found.

He ground his teeth. Would his newest brainchild, the Second Foundation, ever be established or was it an illusion that would remain always just out of reach?

Hari Seldon walked into Dr. Endelecki’s office, a nervous smile on his face.

He said, “You said a couple of weeks, Doctor. It’s been over a month mow.”

Dr. Endelecki nodded. “I’m sorry, Professor Seldon but you wanted everything exact and that is what I have tried to do.”

“Well?” The look of anxiety on Seldon’s face did not disappear. What did you find?”

“A hundred or so defective genes.”

“What! Defective genes. Are you serious, Doctor?”

“Quite serious. Why not? There are no genomes without at least a hundred defective genes; usually there are considerably more. It’s not as bad as it sounds, you know.”

“No, I don’t know. You’re the expert, Doctor, not I.”

Dr. Endelecki sighed and stirred in her chair. “You don’t know anything about genetics, do you, Professor?”

“No, I don’t. A man can’t know everything.”

“You’re perfectly right. I know nothing about this–what do you call it?–this psychohistory of yours.”

Dr. Endelecki shrugged, then continued. “If you wanted to explain anything about it, you would be forced to start from the beginning and I would probably not understand it even so.

“Now, as to genetics–”


“An imperfect gene usually means nothing. There are imperfect genes–so imperfect and so crucial that they produce terrible disorders. These are very rare, though. Most imperfect genes simply don’t work with absolute accuracy. They’re like wheels that are slightly out of balance. A vehicle will move along, trembling a bit, but it will move along.”

“Is that what Wanda has?”

“Yes. More or less. After all, if all genes were perfect, we would all look precisely the same, we would all behave precisely the same. It’s the difference in genes that makes for different people.”

“But won’t it get worse as we grow older?”

“Yes. We all get worse as we grow older. I noticed you limping when you came in. Why is that?”

“A touch of sciatica,” muttered Seldon.

“Did you have it all your life?”

“Of course not.”

“Well, some of your genes have gotten worse with time and now you limp.”

“And what will happen to Wanda with time?”

“I don’t know. I can’t predict the future, Professor; I believe that is your province. However, if I were to hazard a guess, I would say that nothing unusual will happen to Wanda–at least, genetically–except the gathering of old age.”

Seldon said, “Are you sure?”

“You have to take my word for it. You wanted to find out about Wanda’s genome and you ran the risk of discovering things perhaps it is better not to know. But I tell you that, in my opinion, I can see nothing terrible happening to her.”

“The imperfect genes–should we fix them? Can we fix them?”

“No. In the first place, it would be very expensive. Secondly, the chances are that they would not stay fixed. And finally, people are against it.

“But why?”

“Because they’re against science in general. You should know this as well as anyone, Professor. I’m afraid the situation is such, especially since Cleon’s death, that mysticism has been gaining ground. People don’t believe in fixing genes scientifically. They would rather cure things by the laying on of hands or by mumbo-jumbo of some sort or other. Frankly it is extremely difficult for me to continue with my job. Very little funding is coming in.”

Seldon nodded. “Actually I understand this situation all too well. Psychohistory explains it, but I honestly didn’t think the situation was growing so bad so rapidly. I’ve been too involved in my own work to see the difficulties all around me.” He sighed. “I’ve been watching the Galactic Empire slowly fall apart for over thirty years now–and now that it’s beginning to collapse much more rapidly, I don’t see how we can stop it in time.”

“Are you trying to?” Dr. Endelecki seemed amused.

“Yes, I am.”

“Lots of luck. –About your sciatica. You know, fifty years ago it could have been cured. Not now, though.”

“Why not?”

“Well, the devices used for it are gone; the people who could have handled them are working on other things. Medicine is declining.”

“Along with everything else,” mused Seldon. “–but let’s get back to Wanda. I feel she is a most unusual young woman with a brain that is different from most. What do her genes tell you about her brain?”

Dr. Endelecki leaned back in her chair. “Professor Seldon do you know just how many genes are involved in brain function?”


“I’ll remind you that, of all the aspects of the human body, the brain Junction is the most intricate. In fact, as far as we know, there is nothing m the Universe as intricate as the human brain. So you won’t be surprised when I tell you that there are thousands of genes that each play a role in brain function.”


“Exactly. And it is impossible to go through those genes and see anything specifically unusual. I will take your word for it, as far as Wanda is concerned. She is an unusual girl with an unusual brain, but I see nothing in her genes that can tell me anything about that brain–except, of course, that it is normal.”

“Could you find other people whose genes for mental functioning are like Wanda’s, that have the same brain pattern?”

“I doubt it very much. Even if another brain were much like hers, there would still be enormous differences in the genes. No use looking for similarities. –Tell me, Professor, just what is it about Wanda that makes you think her brain is so unusual?”

Seldon shook his head. “I’m sorry. It’s not something I can discuss.”

“In that case, I am certain that I can find out nothing for you. How did you discover that there was something unusual about her brain–this thing you can’t discuss?”

“Accident,” muttered Seldon. “Sheer accident.”

“In that case, you’re going to have to find other brains like hers–also by accident. Nothing else can be done.”

Silence settled over both of them. Finally Seldon said, “Is there anything else you can tell me?”

“I’m afraid not. Except that I’ll send you my bill.”

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