Social Networking down to the Genetic Level
If you’ve ever wanted to know just exactly how much DNA you share with your ridiculously tall brother or doppelganger best friend, you’ll soon be able to find out. 23andMe, a personal genomics startup in Mountain View, California, is about to unveil a new social-networking service that allows customers to compare their DNA. The company hopes that the new offering will encourage consumers to get DNA testing, potentially creating a novel research resource in the process.
23andMe is one of a number of companies that have sprung up in the past year to offer genome-wide DNA testing directly to consumers. People who order the $999 kit send in a sample of spit and, in return, receive an analysis of nearly 600,000 genetic variations linked to disease and other factors, such as ancestry, height, and eye color.
These fledgling companies have garnered both hype and criticism, with most of the controversy centered on the medical applications. Customers can learn their genetic risk, compared with the general population, of myriad diseases, including Alzheimer’s, diabetes, macular degeneration, and cancer. But many scientists and physicians say that it’s unclear whether the average user can truly comprehend this information, and whether knowing her genetic risk will actually improve her health.
Like its competitors, 23andMe offers information about an individual’s disease risk. But it has also opted to emphasize more entertaining approaches to personal genomics, including using colorful visualization tools to look at a subject’s ancestry and compare it with that of celebrities from Jesse James to Benjamin Franklin and Bono. Now, to capitalize on the boom in social networking, the company will launch a genome-sharing tool that allows people to compare their genome with those of family members, friends, and even strangers who have offered up their DNA data.
The image above is an example of the kind of graphics that accompany the online genome-sharing tool. The genomic analysis above is for a real family of European descent, dubbed the Mendels, and illustrates the genetic similarity between Greg Mendel, the father, and his parents, grandparents, and children, as well as reference genomes of people of Asian and African descent. Users can also compare their similarities in terms of genes linked to specific traits, such as fertility and body mass index. Readers who aren’t yet ready to shell out $999 for their own genome analysis can explore the genome-sharing tools by opening a demo account at 23andMe’s website.