How much would you pay to know your past -- or your future? A number of new companies are asking people to pay anywhere from a few hundred dollars to $99,000 to create personal genetic blueprints.
In the past 10 years, advances in genetic science have begun to reveal secrets to our identity that we never before knew. Now, through a simple swab of the cheek or basic blood test, we can learn about thousands of years of our genetic history, the genes behind our physical traits and even our propensity for certain diseases. Is your DNA your destiny?
But unlike some other scientific advances, many of these new technologies are headed straight for the consumer market, pitched by companies such as Knome, 23andMe, Family Tree DNA and deCode. The promise, proponents say, is that widespread genome mapping will result in better, more-personalized medical care.
Some tests let users learn about their ancestry through their mitochondrial DNA, prompting some surprising -- and often shocking -- discoveries that have changed their personal identities. (In the most well-known case, Henry Louis Gates Jr., a prominent Harvard professor of African-American studies, learned that his recent ancestry included far more West Europeans than the mostly African heritage of family lore.) The quest for family history
Companies such as 23andMe sell both ancestry information and a map of some common genome markers, including basic information about risk factors for heart disease, type 2 diabetes and other ailments.
But only a couple of companies are offering full genetic mapping of all 23 pairs of human chromosomes. Knome, a company founded in Cambridge, Mass., as an offshoot of Harvard's Personal Genome Project, is mapping complete genomes for $99,000, currently making the service within reach of only the superrich. What you get for $99,000
Knome won't disclose how many customers it has attracted since launching a year and a half ago, although it told Boston magazine it had landed 20 clients in its first year. Still, Knome's researchers predict that, as in the personal computing industry, the technology for genome mapping will become less expensive and eventually more widely available.
"Just to give you some context, the U.S. government finished sequencing the first genome in 2003, and it took 13 years and about $3 billion," says Jorge Conde, the 31-year-old CEO of Knome. "We're now at the point that we can do it for $99,000 in three months. Our goal is to eventually be able to offer this to a large segment of the population for around $1,000." (Just a year ago, Knome was asking $350,000 for its services.)
As the price comes down, this information could have an enormous impact on the future of medicine.
It is now estimated that 20,000 genes have been discovered in the human genetic code. Some genes are connected to physical traits such as blue eyes; others help determine personality traits -- whether you're