Two rival companies have launched novel genetic services which, for a price tag of $1000 (£483), will allow people to have their genomes scanned, delivering them personal information about their ancestry, some personal disease risks and other inherited traits.
The first - called deCODEme - was launched by Icelandic company deCODE Genetics on 16 November. Customers send a cheek swab in the post from which DNA can be extracted and analysed for 'over one million variants in your genome', says the website. This is achieved by comparing the customer's genome with a database of thousand's of people's genomes in search for single letter changes - known as SNPs - which can act as signposts for disease risk or other inherited traits. Within 2-3 weeks customers can expect to have access to their personal genome profile via a password-protected online account.
The second - called 23andMe, a reference to the number of pairs of chromosomes in the human genome - was launched on 19 November by a start-up company based in California's Silicon Valley. Similarly, customers send a saliva sample in the post from which DNA can be extracted and analysed for 'nearly 60,000 datapoints on your genome', says the website. 23andMe co-founder Anne Wojcicki is married to Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who is also a major funder of the venture.
Both websites emphasise that they are not medical-diagnostic services, instead marketing themselves as providers of genetic information. 23andMe even promotes the novelty of being able to 'connect with other 23andMe customers through sharing features', raising the prospect that a kind of gene-based social networking service might evolve, like MySpace or FaceBook.
Some critics have raised concerns over the potential value of a growing body of genetic information to a biotech or insurance company, particularly in light of the fact that 23andMe intends to share anonymised information with outside groups for the purpose of research.
While both companies have stressed that they take confidentiality very seriously, promising to accept customers anonymously if specified, there are further concerns that insurance companies might mount legal pressure on such companies in order to force information disclosure. 'Will they stoutly defend privacy if sued by insurers?' asks The Economist, also worried that any personal genetic information shared with doctors in the US could inadvertently make its way into the hands of insurers via medical records.
Although there are obvious benefits to be gained from the availability of personal genome services, there are also legitimate concerns that such services could cause unnecessary anxiety for some. 'I would think twice before spitting into that vial', says author Nicholas Carr, writing in the Guardian.