Henry Ford wanted to democratize the automobile. With the Model-T, Ford transformed the automobile from a luxury to a necessity. Now every American family has two or more cars. Microsoft wanted to do the same thing with personal computers and operating systems. Google revolutionized the internet experience by democratizing search. And now, 23andMe wants to democratize personal genetics by offering your own personal genetic test at $399 (It was $1000 in 2007).
23andMe is based in Mountain View, California and is tightly connected to Google. One of the co-founders, Anne Wojcicki, is married to Google co-founder Sergey Brin. Google also invested at least $3.9 million in 23andMe. 23andMe also uses Google search techniques to mine genetic data.
Customers of 23andMe submit samples of their saliva, which is then processed using a custom-made DNA chip. They can then access the information processed by the chip through a secure website. There are several types of information offered by 23andMe. You can learn about your ancestry, e.g about the genetic make up of your maternal and paternal lineage and what their roles are in the history of human evolution.
Some of the information is probably fun and educational. You can find out information on whether you have alcohol flush gene which makes your face turns red when you drink alcohol. Some of the traits are obvious from your physical appearance. For instance, you can find out what your eye color is and whether you have a “tall” gene or not.
The most useful thing you can learn about is the information on the diseases that your gene may carry. 23andMe offers information on how your genes are connected to the risk for of diseases such as heart attack, arthritis, macular degeneration, breast cancer, colorectal cancer, prostate cancer, multiple sclerosis, obesity, and diabetes to name a few.
Currently, there is information on 80 diseases and traits. The list will be expanded rapidly in the future as 23andMe is keen on taking advatange of the explosion of genetic research in recent years.
23andMe also works with research organizations to understand diseases better. For instance, 23andMe Inc. and The Parkinson’s Institute and Clinical Center recently announced a research initiative to support the development of advanced methods for clinical and epidemiologic research for Parkinson’s disease.
So a democratic genetic test may become a reality sooner than you thought. I would not be surprised that we will be able to share our genetic information on social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace 5 years from now.