Now for the modest price of $99, you can send a couple milliliters of your spit using a DNA testing kit called 23andMe and receive a thorough report within six to eight weeks of your ancestral history, your genetic predisposition to certain health risks and conditions, and even your familial partiality to cilantro. When Anne Wojcicki originally developed 23andMe in 2006, the kit cost $999, but the company launched a $50 million campaign to make the genotyping kit more affordable for everyone. So far, more than 200,000 people have had their DNA genotyped in 23andMe’s lab, and approximately 90% of those users have participated in the company’s research on a variety of subjects ranging from Parkinson’s disease to unibrows.
Genetic mapping is controversial for good reason. While Wojcicki, who graduated from Yale with a degree in biology, argues that DNA mapping has the potential to revolutionize health care by shifting the focus from treatment to prevention, others raise the legitimate concern that these technological advancements have the potential to enter eugenics territory. Wojcicki’s 23andMe kit, however, occupies a unique niche in this debate for it puts the knowledge in the hands of everyday citizens, rather than government officials and mad scientists.
Wojcicki emphasizes how empowering it can be to understand your DNA and know things like your carrier status, disease risk, and drug response. This information can enable individuals to plan and prepare for the future — mentally, financially, professionally and personally. Of course, she understands the gravity of learning of your increased risk for Parkinson’s disease or for a life-threatening sarcoma from 23andMe’s results, but insists that knowledge is still power.
The ethical debate surrounding DNA mapping existed long before Wojcicki developed the 23andMe kit. The Human Genome Project, an initiative sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Institute of Health that collected research for 13 years and ended in 2003, aimed to identify the function of each and every gene in our body; this research also raised ethical concerns, particularly that certain developments could lead to humans attempting to “play God.” This is a common narrative — that genetic mapping would enable us to do away with perceived flaws, and to create a “perfect race.”
Other issues that arise surrounding genetic mapping concern how public such information should be. If you have a particularly high risk for developing a life-threatening disease, should your potential employer know? Should insurance companies be able to treat you differently if they know you have an increased chance of enduring a dangerous condition in ten years?
While these fears are valid, 23andMe does not pose much of a threat. As Wojcicki explains, knowing your genetic information can be extremely empowering if it means learning more about your family heritage or your likelihood of developing a specific disorder — and all that genetic exploration for less than $100 isn't too shabby either.