Ca$h for Genes

After billionaire pedophile Larry Hillblom died, illegitimate children began stepping forward to demand part of his estate. It took cutting-edge genetic sleuths to prove that they were, indeed, to the mogul born.

By this spring, scientists will have produced a comprehensible rough draft of our genome, the 3 billion-word instruction book for human biology. This map of the entire human genetic structure will contain clues to all of our afflictions, all of our gifts, unlocking a trove of information richer and more precise than any biological data that has preceded it.

And it will be mostly nonsense.

Amongst the bits of genetic code suggesting blue eyes, left-handedness, and curiosity, scientists are detecting blatherous twine such as this: hxckgggcaggaxglopl- hxckgggc-aggaxglopl-hxckgg-gcaggaxglopl- hxckgggcag-gaxglopl-hxckg -ggcaggaxglopl-hxckgggca -ggaxglopl. Vast portions of the genome -- most of it, in fact -- are made up of random character repetitions with no apparent purpose or function, like empty miles between West Texas towns.

Peter Barnett, a Richmond private investigator who was sent around the world in search of Larry Hillblom's DNA.
Anthony Pidgeon
Peter Barnett, a Richmond private investigator who was sent around the world in search of Larry Hillblom's DNA.

At this basic, genetic level, the worthless DNA could be taken as proof there exists no such thing as human purpose: Human beings aren't the result of unified genetic cooperation, but are instead motivated by the winners in a game of microscopic chaos. It's every bit of unconscious code against every other bit of unconscious code.

Some of the code perseveres by creating traits sustainable through the perpetuation of species, such as large brains in humans. The rest survives by merely fighting for space along our DNA.

This second type of prodigious swapping and replicating creates harmless errors, strings of parasitic DNA that compound themselves across generations, making each individual's genome more distinct every time it's passed along. This discovery in 1984 made possible the new science of DNA fingerprinting: Most biological material contains in its parasitic DNA a unique bar code, an infallible identification of the material's source.

This fact was initially used by immigration authorities a decade and a half ago to investigate family-unification claims of would-be immigrants. Two years later, a DNA mismatch proved the innocence of a falsely confessed British rapist. Later still, DNA evidence showed how former Argentine military rulers had secretly adopted as their own the children of murdered leftist parents. Now, rare is the paternity battle, rape case, or murder crime scene that doesn't include DNA analysis.

It's often said the truth can be cruel. But inside the ruthless battleground of the human genome, cruelty produces unassailable truth.

So it is fitting that life's most self-serving terrain might bring closure to one of recent history's more astounding pageants of amoral behavior.

This month, accountants will distribute $50 million apiece to a quartet of children left behind by deceased San Francisco billionaire Larry Hillblom. Such was the value of their junk DNA.

By examining genes from an octet of Pacific Asian dance-hall orphans, a team of Bay Area sleuths has solved the mystery of whether Hillblom was merely a misunderstood eccentric, or a deadbeat pedophile. They helped solve the mystery of whether attorneys for the state of California acted merely as responsible public stewards, or aggressively attempted to deny impoverished orphans their rightful inheritance.

They determined, in short, that some participants in a just-finished battle over the estate of Hillblom, founder of the globe-spanning DHL Worldwide Express air freight company, behaved so consistently and entirely without scruples that it seemed as though, perhaps, amorality was in their genes.

This puzzle's eventual solution could just as easily have remained concealed forever. Hillblom's former partners, their $20 million worth of attorneys, and the California state Attorney General's Office might have prevailed in their assertion that Hillblom's former girlfriends were liars. But thanks to genetic science and some cutting-edge sleuthing, the truth prevailed.

Charles Brenner, a genial middle-aged bachelor, lives in an airy, well-lighted duplex in a shady neighborhood in the hills next to the University of California at Berkeley. He is a passionate fan of classical music, a tendency revealed by the artwork, sheet music, and sophisticated stereo equipment scattered throughout his house. He travels frequently, and takes bicycle rides near his home on weekends when he's not on the road. Years ago, while young and living in Britain, he was a professional bridge player, and he still keeps tabs on the international game. He is a pleasant, invigorating raconteur, knowledgeable about many things, curious about the rest. In manner -- and by nature of his line of work -- he brings to mind L.B. Jefferies, Jimmy Stewart's armchair sleuth character in the movie Rear Window.

"As a mathematician," Brenner demurs, "I don't get out much."

As was the case with Mr. Jefferies, this is true in only the most banally literal of ways. Brenner isn't just any mathematician. He's a forensic mathematician, a term Brenner coined to describe his specialty, which uses complex computer calculations to add meaning to the variance and similarities among disparate strands of DNA. This science involves calculating the statistical likelihood that one piece of code might be similar to another. A student of numbers theory, Brenner has fashioned himself into one of the leaders in this field, designing computer programs that calculate the nature of biological relationships between individuals based on information in the genome. In one recent project he invented a scheme for proving whether a person is white or black, European or Japanese, based on snippets of his genome.

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