23andme: A Genetic Social Network

With Internet usage promoting more and more information sharing, a new social network has formed. However, instead of sharing pictures or tweets, it shares the very basis of our beings: our genetics. Google-affiliated biotech company 23andme has been in the business of personal genomics since 2006, but it just recently introduced a new social networking feature along with a price reduction that democratizes personal genomics. Now, it is easier than ever for people to find out their genetic risks for diseases, as well as connect with others who share parts of their genome.

A standard 23andme kit, as shown above, costs $207. Photo courtesy of 23andme.

For the user, the process of personal genotyping is simple: you just order and register a kit, send a saliva sample back to the labs, and receive your results in six to eight weeks. On the back end, however, personal genotyping is a much more com-plex process. Personal genotyping depends on analyzing multiple single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) that have been associated with different traits. Basically, SNPs are set positions on the genome containing various variations, or alleles, that are associated with certain traits. The labs at 23andme extract DNA from cheek cells in the saliva sample and use PCR to amplify and ‘cut’ the DNA into smaller fragments. These fragments are then applied to a DNA chip, which contains millions of tiny fluorescent probes corresponding to SNPs. Because multiple genes govern most traits that the company tests for, the chips are analyzed to calculate genetic probabilities. 23andme then sends you back graphs depicting this genetic probability, including your minimum and maximum chances of developing a certain trait.

However, as any smoker or exercise-fiend can tell you, lifestyle choices strongly affect your chances of developing any disease. For this reason, personal genotyping is a rather inexact science. Your probability of developing a trait can vary greatly depending on your environment and the choices you make in your life. For example, a person may be between 8 and 53 percent likely to develop type 2 diabetes, as shown on a sample result from 23andme’s website, but this wide range represents the crucial influence of life style choices that will dictate if the actual probability will lie closer to 8 or 53%. In the same vein, people who have low genetic risk for a trait may still develop the disease if they do not take care of themselves.

DNA is extracted from saliva and applied to a DNA chip for personal genetic testing. Photo courtesy of 23andme.

With the new social networking feature, however, users are being encouraged to share their results with more people than just their doctors. Members can use it to find out how much DNA they share with their relatives, as well as search for new family members. Additionally, users can search the database by allele to find people who share the same genetic predispositions. While users are required to explicitly agree to have their information shared on the social network, trends demonstrate that more and more people are choosing to publish their personal genetic information. And although there are many privacy concerns, the Genetic Information Non-discrimination Act (GINA) of 2008, explicitly “protects Americans from discrimination (in health insurance and employment decisions) on the basis of genetic information,” and it can be argued that the benefits of sharing data greatly outweigh concerns about privacy.

However, the link between this interest in genetics and an actual understanding of genetics is not straightforward. According to Yale Professor of Anthropology Brenda Bradley, 23andme’s social network “is an interesting idea that would promote broader public interest in genomics, which is always a good thing. However, that does not necessarily mean that it will promote public understanding of genetic ancestry and genetic risk. The oversimplified associations between genetic markers and genetic risk can be misleading.” In fact, Bradley “worries that these initiatives imply that DNA genotyping provides some concrete definition of who you are and who you might become.” She concludes that “the recent explosion of these direct-to-consumer genetic testing companies highlights the need for standard courses on basic ‘genomic literacy’ in American education.”

Despite concerns about privacy or understanding, 23andme’s services and social network are open to the public and are increasingly being used by concerned and curious members of the public. As the database increases, new genes are being discovered and researched. Personal genotyping may revolutionize the way we think about and take charge of our own health if we can promote a broader understanding of genomics and the relationship between our genes and our environment.