Does Cilantro taste like soap? Do you descend from Neanderthals? Are you at risk for Alzheimer's? Whether the answer is yes, or no, it all comes down to your genes. At-home DNA kits are becoming all the rage with more than 12MM people sending in their spit to reveal their DNA’s untold secrets, nearly 3x growth in just one year. This trend has taken the meaning of “personalization” to new heights, affecting industries from beauty to nutrition to weed.
There are dozens of competitors in the space—23andMe, Ancestry.com, Orig3n, Helix, Veritas, Genos (National Geographic even has one!)—and they all offer different reports. With a simple swab or spit, you can find out all about your genes in no time. 23andMe offers more than 125 reports alone, ranging from ancestry to health predispositions to carrier status to all of your other traits. Don’t you want to know if you have wet ear wax or a higher propensity for a unibrow?
Orig3n takes a different approach by segmenting their reports by category—fitness, nutrition, beauty, behavior, child development and even a superhero report (I’m sorry, what?). Depending on what information you’re interested in, there are many different recommendations for which test to use (see here, here, or here).
The at-home genetic testing industry has been riddled with controversy since the day it started, not only from a health perspective but also from a data perspective.
What the tests actually offer is the difference between an answer and a hypothesis. These tests are NOT meant to determine if you have a health risk, they ARE meant to determine if you have a likelihood for the risk.
This has created a fine line for how these companies market themselves because over promising on life-threatening health risks is not a business anyone wants to be in (besides the crazy Theranos chick, more on her later).
Some do take it way too far though. Helix, dubbed as the first online DNA store, gives you recommendations on what to buy based on your DNA, like wine or a scarf. LOL. MIT Technology Review describes that "scrolling through Helix.com has quickly become a little like visiting the Sharper Image of DNA."
You might be wondering, do these tests even work? It’s hard to say. The AMA Journal of Ethics cites a study that uncovered "40% of variants in a variety of genes reported in DTC raw data were false positives" and other claims were entirely misclassified. With that being said, their sample was only 49 people so please take it with a grain of salt (or chromosome in this case).
Science News describes it this way: "23andMe examines only 0.01 percent of the 6 billion DNA letters in the human genome. It’s the genetic equivalent of spot-checking a few letters in each chapter of War and Peace and trying to decipher the plot." What experts recommend is to do a full genetic testing by a doctor trained in this, if you really must know the truth.
This industry has opened up a can of data worms, raising many ethical questions along with it. For all of the true crime fans out there, I’m sure you’re familiar with the "Golden State Killer" who the police tracked down by creating a fake profile with the crime scene DNA on an ancestry website, leading them to his relatives and then him. Feels like a good ending to a movie, but should the government be able to use this data?
In defense of data, there are many awesome things that these treasure troves of DNA can help identify. 23andMe partnered with Olay to uncover what really contributes to wrinkles, nature or nurture? Come to find out, nurture takes the front seat—NYT reports on this study noting that "personal behavior, such as using daily sun protection, limiting exposure to UV rays, not smoking and using a moisturizer, had a bigger impact than the genes did."
How has the DNA trend created a new level of personalization? Companies are cropping up offering recommendations from skincare to nutrition to weed based on your DNA.
LifeDNA promises to help you choose the most effective skincare products based on your genes.
DNAFit markets themselves as a "personalized health & wellbeing company using ground-breaking genetic science to usher in a new era of nutrition, fitness and wellbeing" providing diet insights and personalized meal plans.
The Hustle wrote a deep dive about their experience matching DNA strands to weed strains. Their takeaway? "Like most things on the market, these genetic tests offer a melting pot of vaguely educational content and complete nonsense".
I am shocked that a company hasn't tried to claim they can match DNA to what Netflix shows you should watch, or even use "DNA targeting" for ads instead of behavioral targeting.
The current state of DNA products seems to be more of an empty promise at this point. While some are more legit than others, hopefully, the future of DNA driven products will actually deliver.
What does this all mean? There is an increasingly blurred line developing between science and fads making the truth about our DNA harder to discern. If you are going to take the time to read about your genome sequence, make sure to also read the fine print. With that being said, a large portion of the population clearly wants to learn as much information about themselves as possible. While DNA product personalization hasn't quite hit its stride, I don't doubt there will be many more companies trying to crack the code and many people looking to hyper-personalize their lives.