In the spring of 2017, a college student named Mary spit into a tube and sent it to the DNA testing company Ancestry,which analyzed it and sent back a breakdown of her family history.
But Mary wanted to know more. The human genome contains, in theory, an extraordinary wealth of pre-programmed information about who we are and who we might become: whether she was at risk for the same types of cancer that killed her parents, for instance, or if she had medical conditions she could unknowingly pass on to her children.
For that information, Mary were withholding her last name to protect her privacy turned to a dubious new sector of the genomics industry, in which startups claim to provide vastly greater insights than prominent companies like Ancestry and 23andMe do. She uploaded a copy of her raw genetic code, which Ancestry provided as a 17.6 megabyte text file, to a site called Genomelink, which advertises tests for everything from medical conditions and mental illnesses to ludicrously specific personality traits including loneliness, social communication problems, and vulnerability to helicopter parenting.
But when her results arrived, Mary immediately noticed that many were wildly inaccurate. Genomelink said she was less easily depressed, but Mary was diagnosed with clinical depression at a young age. The startup predicted that she had a peanut allergy, but Mary told Futurism that peanut butter is one of the true loves of my life. Other errors in Marys report included traits like blood iron levels, body fat measurements, hearing problems, height, and skin complexion.
I felt that much of it was off-base and unhelpful, she told Futurism, as it didnt fit me at all.
Genomelink is just one of a growing number of shady DNA testing startups now operating in the regulatory Wild West of commercial genomics.
Theres GenePlaza, for instance, which sold a DNA test that claimed to predict users sexual preferences and still sells tests that purport to measure intelligence and risk of depression. A company called Soccer Genomics claims to examine a childs DNA to create a sports training regimen to turn them into the perfect soccer player. An outfit called GenoPalate told a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter that their DNA demanded a diet of elk meat and passion fruit. A venture called Vinome claims it can recommend the perfect wine for each person based on their genetic code.
The problem, according to experts, is that these companies are promising information about DNA with a granularity that even scientists cant deliver. Deanna Church, a geneticist at the biotech company Inscripta, told Futurism the tests are all equally useless.
There is not a scientific basis for this sort of testing, she said. I certainly would not recommend anyone spend any money on this sort of thing.
But thousands of people are doing just that and receiving supposed facts about themselves that have little or no scientific grounding. This can cause problems Genomelink customers could feasibly see their predictions for traits like gluten sensitivity, longevity, or alcohol drinking behavior, assume the results are valid, and make ill-informed lifestyle or medical changes based on the results.
And other Genomelink customers agree with Mary: the results just dont hold up.
It sometimes feels like horoscope readings! one woman told Futurism. Many seem like self-perception results. How can I know if they are correct when what I feel about it may only be my perception rather than a fact?
Another concern is privacy. Genomelink tells customers they can request to have their data scrubbed from the companys servers, but all it takes is one corporate acquisition or potentially a generous enough bid for the stores of personal data for that to change. Underlying the phenomenon is an unavoidable economic reality: Its getting incredibly cheap to have your DNA sequenced. Just ten years ago, it cost nearly $100,000 to produce a full human genome, according to the National Human Genome Research Institute. Today, an Ancestry kit costs just $59.
These increasingly-affordable tests are tantalizing your DNA is essentially a personal blueprint that dictates everything from your susceptibility to specific diseases to your eye color. While our environments and lifestyles play major roles in who and what we become, the influence of DNA is vast.
The ability to interpret DNAs full influence, however, still eludes us. Geneticists have only started to crack DNAs code, and experts told Futurism that theyre nowhere near able to predict something as complex as personality traits and that any startup claiming to do so should raise immediate red flags.
I think its fair to say that by and large, most of these tests are not useful at the moment, Shoumita Dasgupta, a biomedical geneticist at the Boston University School of Medicine, told Futurism. Maybe its just me being cynical, but I think its simply greed that is driving people to develop these tools for which there is limited scientific justification at best.
Tomohiro Takano, the CEO of Genomelink parent company Awakens, readily admits that the results arent always accurate.
I know that many of the DNA traits may not be true, Takano said in an interview with Futurism.
Takano did point toward some steps Genomelink has taken to communicate its own limitations. Every time a Genomelink customer gets a new trait report, he said, it comes with information that indicates how reliable the prediction is, along with a breakdown of the rigor of the studies its based on.
Takano also defended the company by saying that it doesnt explicitly recommend lifestyle changes based on results.
What we want to do here is communicate that limitation too, he said. Many of our users, myself included, want to know where is the science today.
Overall, Takano said, he sees Genomelink as an entertainment product as much as an educational one an idea that was harshly rebuked by experts.
I think it is concerning when the line between medical testing and entertainment is blurred, Gillian Hooker, President-Elect of the National Society of Genetic Counselors, told Futurism. Imagery and language that indicates a test may be medically useful could be very misleading when theres limited or no evidence to support its use.
And I think there is a particular vulnerability when you involve conditions that are poorly understood scientifically, physically and emotionally challenging and for which people may be seeking answers that science has yet to uncover, Hooker added, listing traits like depression, allergies, vitamin reports, and food sensitivities all of which Genomelink claims to identify.
Make no mistake: DNA tests can already provide doctors with valuable information about patients health, and Hooker often helps patients navigate them in her clinical practice. Genetic assessments can help oncologists determine whether their patients have a high risk of cancer, for instance, and how best to treat any existing tumors.
It might be simplest to picture DNA as an extremely intricate instruction manual. DNA exists as a long string of molecules called nucleotides, which include one of four molecular components. The order of those four components, read from one end to the other, guides the biological machinery found in every cell as it assembles and operates the human body.
Hooker said DNA screens will likely provide useful tools for cardiologists, neurologists, pediatricians, and also for prenatal caregivers. But the science to support tests for mental illness and intelligence already apoorly-defined metric isnt there yet.
For complex traits, we just dont understand enough to be able to look at someones DNA and make predictions about sports ability, intelligence, etc, Church, the geneticist, said. It is not that these things dont have a genetic component, it is just that we dont understand enough about the genetics, or how environment impacts these genetic variants.
Because this realm of science is so new, Hooker recommends that patients consult with trained genetic counselors who can offer specialized guidance to make sure tests will yield useful info and help people understand and come to terms with their results afterward.
Mary took her results with a grain of salt and realized that Genomelink wasnt giving her valid interpretations of her DNA. But others could easily be misled Mary said that she feels Genomelink never communicated to her the scientific limitations of its reports.
Personally, I find it irresponsible to market products of this type, Dasgupta, the geneticist from Boston, told Futurism, because providing genetic trait reports that are validated by robust science alongside flimsier predictions lends authority to the latter.
She added: We cant expect the average consumer to be able to tell the difference.
Futurism Associate Social Media Editor Natalie Coleman provided significant research assistance for this story.
- Fate of Male Birth Control Injection Now in Government's Hands - Futurism - November 22nd, 2019
- Our Solar System Is Blanketed in a Giant Wall of Fire - Futurism - November 22nd, 2019
- Professor Claims to Have Discovered Insect-Like Life on Mars - Futurism - November 22nd, 2019
- Scientists Confirm Water Vapor Above the Surface of Europa - Futurism - November 22nd, 2019
- Here's What Happens When a Solar Storm Slams Into the Earth - Futurism - November 22nd, 2019
- NASA Will Test Beautiful Spaceship That Looks Like Space Shuttle - Futurism - November 22nd, 2019
- The Toll Casual Space Tourism Will Take on the Planet (Updated) - Futurism - November 22nd, 2019
- People With Half Their Brain Removed Are Doing Surprisingly Well - Futurism - November 22nd, 2019
- Sophia the Robot Tells Crowded Room That It Doesn’t Have Sex - November 10th, 2019
- This Startup Wants to Turn Space Junk Into Orbital Hotels - November 10th, 2019
- Italy Will Soon Force Public Schools to Teach Climate Change - November 10th, 2019
- Watch a Piece of Metal Refuse to Sink in Water - November 10th, 2019
- Elon Musk: I Can Build a Martian City With 1,000 Starships - November 10th, 2019
- Watch a Piece of a SpaceX Rocket Careen Back Down to Earth - November 10th, 2019
- People Are Suddenly Getting Texts From Last Valentine’s Day - November 10th, 2019
- Doctors Announce First Ever “Fully Functional” Penis Transplant - November 10th, 2019
- Watch a Pack of MIT’s Mini Robots Cavort in Autumn Leaves - November 10th, 2019
- DNA Test Startup Claims It Can Spot Embryos With Low Intelligence - November 10th, 2019
- India’s Space Agency Wants to Explore Venus - November 10th, 2019
- Twitter Accidentally Trends Horrifyingly Explicit Sexual Terms - November 10th, 2019
- Scientists Tout “Miracle” Cancer Drug That Starves Tumor Cells - November 10th, 2019
- Trump Advisers Want to Get WiFi, Amazon Deliveries in National Parks - November 10th, 2019
- Kanye West Unveils Yeezy Sneakers Made of Algae Foam - November 10th, 2019
- Someone Published All the Membership Data From a Neo-Nazi Website - November 10th, 2019
- Scientists Detect Huge Thermonuclear Blast in Deep Space - November 10th, 2019
- Ambrosia Is Back to Selling Transfusions of Young People’s Blood - November 10th, 2019
- The CDC Says It Really Knows What’s Causing “Vape Lung” This Time - November 10th, 2019
- People Are Posting Their Genitals on Reddit to Get STI Diagnoses - Futurism - November 8th, 2019
- Scientists Accidentally Recreate Big Bang Detonation in the Lab - Futurism - November 8th, 2019
- This Scientist Wants to Gene-Hack Hybrid Humans to Survive Mars - Futurism - November 8th, 2019
- This Startup Is Aging Red Wine on the International Space Station - Futurism - November 8th, 2019
- Astronomers Spot Black Hole the Size of Manhattan - Futurism - November 8th, 2019
- Here's How Boeing is Planning to Get Astronauts to the Moon - Futurism - November 8th, 2019
- Elon Musk: Noisy Starship Spaceports Will Be 20 Miles Offshore - Futurism - November 8th, 2019
- Meet the Startup Building Robot Swarms to Mine Ice on the Moon - Futurism - November 8th, 2019
- Microsoft Is Giving Up On Regular People Ever Using Bing - Futurism - November 8th, 2019
- OpenAI Just Released the AI It Said Was Too Dangerous to Share - Futurism - November 8th, 2019
- Sophia the Robot Tells Crowded Room That It Doesn't Have Sex - Futurism - November 8th, 2019
- NASA: Four Astronauts Will Stay on the Moon For Two Weeks - Futurism - November 1st, 2019
- Here's How 20 Years of Office Work Will Disfigure the Human Body - Futurism - November 1st, 2019
- This Creepy Life-Sized Doll Is a Warning About What Office Life Is Doing to Us - ScienceAlert - November 1st, 2019
- This Amazing Visualization Shows You How Big Space Really Is - Futurism - November 1st, 2019
- Colliding Galaxies Look Like the Glowing Eyes of a Ghostly Face - Futurism - November 1st, 2019
- Watch Astronauts Play Baseball on the International Space Station - Futurism - November 1st, 2019
- Scientists Discover New Class of Tiny Black Holes - Futurism - November 1st, 2019
- Here Are The First-Ever Images From the Dark Matter Telescope - Futurism - November 1st, 2019
- Life Could Evolve on Tiny Planets With 3% of Earth's Mass - Futurism - November 1st, 2019
- It's Official: Elon Musk Will Go to Trial Over "Pedo" Comments - Futurism - November 1st, 2019
- Doctors Just Livestreamed a Brain Surgery on Facebook - Futurism - November 1st, 2019
- This Electric Toothbrush Uses AI Because Nothing is Sacred Anymore - Futurism - November 1st, 2019
- Ford Patents Drone That Pops Out of a Car's Trunk - Futurism - October 16th, 2019
- Facebooks Cryptocurrency is Collapsing in Front of Our Eyes - Futurism - October 16th, 2019
- This Malware Makes ATMs Spit Out All Their Money - Futurism - October 16th, 2019
- 2021 Moon Rover Will Have Legs Instead of Wheels - Futurism - October 16th, 2019
- Russias Working on a Lunar Rover With a Humanoid Torso - Futurism - October 16th, 2019
- Former NASA Scientist "Convinced" We Already Found Life on Mars - Futurism - October 16th, 2019
- Porsche and Boeing Want to Build This Sexy Flying Car Together - Futurism - October 16th, 2019
- A Climate Protester Just Glued Himself to the Top of an Airplane - Futurism - October 16th, 2019
- Quirky futurist podcast The Life Cycle starts off with the apocalypse - Boing Boing - October 16th, 2019
- This Is the First-Ever Smartphone Made Completely in Africa - Futurism - October 16th, 2019
- Its Almost 2020 and There's a Cassette Tape Shortage - Futurism - October 16th, 2019
- Its Almost 2020 and There's a Cassette Tape Shortage - Futurism - October 13th, 2019
- Porsche and Boeing Want to Build This Sexy Flying Car Together - Futurism - October 13th, 2019
- The UK Knew Its Passport AI Was Racist and Used It Anyway - Futurism - October 13th, 2019
- Watching This Volcano Erupt From Space Is Absolutely Epic - Futurism - October 13th, 2019
- Former NASA Scientist "Convinced" We Already Found Life on Mars - Futurism - October 13th, 2019
- A Climate Protester Just Glued Himself to the Top of an Airplane - Futurism - October 13th, 2019
- NASA: Rover May Have Found Remnants of Ancient Martian Oasis - Futurism - October 13th, 2019
- Police Robot Ignores Woman Trying to Call Police - Futurism - October 13th, 2019
- Astronauts Just Grew Meat in Space for the First Time - Futurism - October 13th, 2019
- China Is Breeding Massive Pigs That Weigh More than a Grand Piano - Futurism - October 13th, 2019
- This Is the First-Ever Smartphone Made Completely in Africa - Futurism - October 13th, 2019
- Elon Musk: Teslas Will Soon Make "Fart" and "Goat" Noises - Futurism - October 13th, 2019
- Black Eyed Peas & J Balvin's 'Ritmo' Will Take You Back in Time - Billboard - October 13th, 2019
- Dustin Bolton Brings Afro-Futurist Adventure Kudzu: Heart of the Mountain to KaBOOM! in 2020 - Bleeding Cool News - October 13th, 2019
- 3.5 Million Years Ago, Our Galaxy Was Rocked by an Explosion - Futurism - October 13th, 2019
- Facebooks Cryptocurrency is Collapsing in Front of Our Eyes - Futurism - October 13th, 2019
- NASA's Chief Scientist is Oddly Terrified By Finding Life on Mars - Futurism - October 1st, 2019
- Idiots Are Trying to Run Themselves Over With Their Own Teslas - Futurism - October 1st, 2019
- Heres How We Could Feed a Million People on Mars - Futurism - October 1st, 2019