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Biotechnology and health

Ozzy Osbourne’s Genome

Genome sequencing makes its move into pop culture.
October 25, 2010

The “Godfather of heavy metal,” “the Prince of Darkness,” the man who made himself famous by biting the heads off small animals–Ozzy Osbourne–has had his genome sequenced.

The former frontman for Black Sabbath and reality show star recently became one of only a few hundred people in the world who have had their entire genetic code deciphered and analyzed. Osbourne, 61, wrote about his experience in a column in The Times of London on Sunday. He says he was initially skeptical of the idea–“The only Gene I know anything about is the one in Kiss”–but quickly came around when the originator of the project, identified only as Chris, convinced him the results could help explain how he survived 40 years of intense drug and alcohol abuse and all the ill-advised antics that go along with it. As Osbourne notes in his column;

“Look,” said Chris, “you’ve said it yourself: you’re a medical miracle. You went on a drink and-drugs bender for 40 years. You broke your neck on a quad bike. You died twice in a chemically induced coma. You walked away from your tour bus without a scratch after it was hit by a plane. Your immune system was so compromised by your lifestyle, you got a positive HIV test for 24 hours, until they proved it was wrong. Yet here you are, alive and well.”

Osbourne’s blood sample was collected in early July and sent to Cofactor Genomics, a company in St. Louis, Missouri, that sequences DNA. The DNA sequence results were then sent to Knome, a startup based in Cambridge that analyzes human genomes.

Researchers will present the research in more detail later this week at the TED Med conference in San Diego, where Osbourne and his wife, Sharon, will participate in a roundtable discussion. But Jorge Conde, Knome’s chief executive officer and a former TR35 winner, shared some of the results with me this morning.

According to the analysis, Osbourne has about 300,000 novel variants, a figure similar to that of other newly sequenced genomes. (The number of novel variants discovered per genome will fall as more people are sequenced.) Analysis of his mitochondrial DNA, inherited from his mother, revealed that Osbourne shared a common ancestor with Stephen Colbert about 1,000 years ago.

The rocker also learned that, like most people of European descent, he has some some DNA segments inherited from Neandertals. “For fun, we did the same analysis for George Church,” says Conde. Church, a pioneer in DNA sequencing, Harvard professor, and one of Knome’s cofounders, “had three times as much Neandertal DNA.”

Given his infamous history, researchers also analyzed a number of genes involved in drug metabolism and addiction. Knome’s director of research, Nathan Pearson, aka Dr. Nathan, embarked to England earlier this month to explain the findings to Osbourne.

Bearing in mind what Dr. Nathan said about those odds being dodgy, here are some other interesting things he told me: I’m 6.13 times more likely than the average person to have alcohol dependency or alcohol cravings (er… yeah); 1.31 times more likely to have a cocaine addiction (this must be bollocks, because anyone who takes coke as much as I did gets hooked); and 2.6 times more likely to have hallucinations while taking cannabis (makes sense, although I was usually loaded on so many different things at the same time, it was hard to know what was doing what).

…“One of the unusual things we found in your genome was a spelling in the regulatory segment of your ADH4 gene, which metabolises alcohol,” said Dr. Nathan. “It could make you more able to break down alcohol than the average person. Or less able.” I used to drink four bottles of cognac a day. I’m not sure I need a Harvard scientist to get to the bottom of that mystery.

In my mind, the findings best demonstrate how easy it is to create a narrative out of a genome, especially one belonging to someone with as colorful a personality as Ozzy’s. But Dr. Nathan got it right when he explained his own theory for how the musician has survived thus far.

“Look, Mr. Osbourne, after studying your history, taking your blood, extracting your genes from the white cells, making them readable, sequencing them, analysing and interpreting the data using some of the most advanced technology available in the world today–and of course comparing your DNA against all the current research in the US National Library of Medicine, not to mention the 18th revision of the public human reference genome–I think I can say with a good deal of confidence why you’re still alive.”

I looked at him. He looked at me.

“Go on, then,” I said. “Spit it out.”

“Sharon,” he replied.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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