The one-time front man for heavy metal band Black Sabbath has joined the likes of DNA co-discoverer James Watson and Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates on the short roster of people to have their full genome sequenced and analyzed.
Ozzy Osbourne let a little blood to submit to the testing in July. Cofactor Genomics, a Saint Louis–based company, sequenced Osbourne's genome; Knome, Inc., which also helped raise money for the project, analyzed the data.
For his part, Osbourne was at first skeptical about the project, he explained in his October 24 Sunday Times of London column. But the platinum-record artist then began to wonder if he, in fact, might have something to offer science.
"I was curious," he wrote in his column. "Given the swimming pools of booze I've guzzled over the years—not to mention all of the cocaine, morphine, sleeping pills, cough syrup, LSD, Rohypnol…you name it—there's really no plausible medical reason why I should still be alive. Maybe my DNA could say why."
But what can a bunch of genetic code tell us about someone's propensity to become the ordained "Godfather of Heavy Metal" or to bite the head off a live bat on stage?
Scientific American spoke with Jorge Conde, co-founder and chief executive of Cambridge, Mass.–based Knome, and Nathan Pearson, the company's director of research, who had sat down with Ozzy earlier to go over the results of the analysis.
Ozzy and his wife Sharon Osbourne will also relay some of the results—more "Down to Earth" than via "Ozzmosis"—Friday at the TEDMED 2010 meeting in San Diego.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
Why did Ozzy want to have his genome sequenced?
Jorge Conde: The main question for Ozzy was: Is there any information in there that could explain Ozzy?
I think he was curious about how he had managed to survive a pretty hard life in a lot of ways. So there were some questions around that—how substance use had affected him and how he metabolized things. He was also interested in specific health questions—he was diagnosed with a Parkinson's-like condition. He was also very interested in what we could tell him about his ancestry.
Nathan Pearson: He was really curious to know about his Parkinson's-like symptoms, so we looked pretty closely in his genome for that kind of stuff. We found a few hints, but we couldn't tell him why he has symptoms like a tremor. And frankly, his history of drug abuse probably contributed to that, too.
He asked us good questions about dopamine. Many of the variants in his genome are about how the brain processes dopamine.
Is Ozzy the first rock star to have his full genome sequenced?
Conde: Yes, as far as I know. I can definitely tell you he's the first prince of darkness to have his genome sequenced and analyzed.
Can we see in his genome any traces of his legendary rock-and-roll lifestyle—or evidence of his body's efforts to repair any damage?
Conde: We cannot find the "Ozzy Osbourne" gene. But what we did see, as one of our scientists refers to it, is a lot of interesting smoke—but not any specific fire. We found many variants—novel variants—in genes associated with addiction and metabolism that are interesting but not quite definitive.