Free DNA Analysis From 23andMe – Good Gimmick, Tired Technology?

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23andmeIt’s the biggest sale of the spring, and it’s available right now in every cell in your body. Personal genomics pioneers, 23andMe are offering to give you a free DNA test if you order online today. Using the DNA present in your saliva the Silicon Valley startup can find the tiny genetic markers that may indicate you are at a higher risk for heart attack, have a friendly predisposition to caffeine, or any number of other traits.

Typically $199, the ‘free’ DNA test is cheap, but not exactly $0. The offer requires you to sign up for 23andMe’s Personal Genome Service at $9/month for a year. Still, $108 is definitely less than you’d expect to pay. If you’ve ever wanted to check out the secrets of your genetic code, 23andMe’s ‘DNA Day’ discount might be exactly what you need to get you started. Hurry, though, the offer is only good while supplies last, and it will end tonight (April 11th) at midnight PDT.

23andMe is a smart company for many reasons. They were among the first to offer retail DNA analysis to a wide consumer market. In the case of a few big-named illnesses, like Parkinson’s, they have spear-headed drives to collect large numbers of DNA samples that might give scientists insights. They have organized user-driven research initiatives, allowing those who purchase their tests to help determine which diseases the company would try to link to genetic markers in the future. Needless to say, any discoveries about how these illnesses were linked to genes would inevitably make their DNA analysis services more valuable as well. Yet it’s not all so Machiavellian. When these tests end up showing important information about a patient they can be very helpful, and even save lives, as the following video from 23andMe will attest:

As smart as 23andMe has been in developing their business, I’m worried that the underlying technology of their company has an upcoming expiration date. They rely upon a very particular kind of DNA analysis – mapping important gene variations known as single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). While SNPs can provide some meaningful insights on occasion, they are not nearly as comprehensive as sequencing your whole genome. Whole genome sequencing has a price tag of around $5000 or more, so the $108 SNP test seems like a much better bargain. In five years, however, I’m pretty sure that a retail whole genome service could be available for $100 or so as well. Why settle for just looking at pieces of your DNA when you can see the whole thing for about the same price?

Actually, you may not find either option very useful. While some patient will discover meaningful facts about their genes, most of us may not. I certainly didn’t when I took a SNP based test (from a different retailer). Personal genomics are still at such an early level that we don’t know how to weight much of the genetic information we learn from SNP or whole genome analyses. There need to be several more years of genetic research, and dozens of groundbreaking discoveries before DNA testing becomes the universally helpful medical boon we already expect it to be.

If I were to make a recommendation, it would be this: think of these tests as exercises in scientific curiosity. If you want a serious medical analysis, spend more time with your doctor and health professional. If however, you are interested in looking at pieces of DNA just to see what you can learn, then this kind of personal genomics may be exactly what you want. There’s really no better time to satisfy that intellectual itch, so shell up the $108 and order from 23andMe today. Let us know if you find out something interesting about your DNA. Hmm…I wonder if there is a SNP that corresponds to enjoying Singularity Hub.

[image and video credits: 23andMe]
[source: 23andMe]