The Rise of Direct-to-Consumer DNA Tests
While new scientific discoveries are made all the time, not many of them manage to find their way into the consumer market as quickly as DNA testing has.
Since scientists finished mapping the human genome and identifying specific genetic markers for heritable traits, a whole industry has exploded onto the scene to sell the technology directly to consumers.
In this article, I explain some of the reasons why this has been possible and some of the consumer applications of DNA testing.
Traditionally, one had to go to a medical professional in a hospital or clinic to get a DNA test done. In direct to consumer (DTC) DNA testing however, a person can completely bypass a medical professional and access DNA testing directly.
The biggest factor behind the rise of this phenomenon has been the rapid advancement of analytics technology in genetics. Today, a DNA test can reveal far more than it did a few years ago.
For example, DNA testing can show the genetic predisposition of an individual towards certain health conditions such as cancer. By taking a genetic test, I can also tell if I am at a higher risk of getting a heart attack because of my genes.
Genetic testing can also reveal someone’s genealogy in surprising accuracy. The results of a genealogy DNA test can uncover ancestry going back several generations and even reveal the geographic location of those ancestors. In the process of sequencing the human genome, scientists discovered that different continental groups differ in genetic markers by as much as 4 to 9 percent. This discovery has made possible genealogy testing.
Technological advancements, however, are not enough to get consumers excited about a scientific field. Another factor, namely a drastic reduction in cost, had to come into play.
Simpler genetic tests only cost about $100 today, sometimes less depending on the company and type of test involved.
For more advanced genetic testing, the cost can go up to $1,000 or more. This is still cheaper than going to a general practitioner and being referred to a specialist for testing. And it’s an order of magnitude cheaper than any option just 5-10 years ago.
Consumer Applications of DNA Testing
1. Paternity Tests
So far, the most advanced and accurate method of determining paternity is through DNA testing. The accuracy provided by this test and the lower costs associated with it has seen an increase in the number of consumer paternity testing services.
A paternity DNA test checks whether a child has inherited 50% of his DNA from the alleged father. It involves the collection of samples, which are then submitted to testing services. After a few days, the results of the paternity test are sent to the customer.
Paternity testing is important in situations such as custody proceedings, child support and inheritance. One of the most notable applications is by the TV show, Paternity Court.
The judge on the show uses consumer-grade DNA paternity tests to make decisions regarding the cases brought before her.
Other shows that make use of DNA tests include Divorce Court, Forensic Files, Trisha and Judge Mathis.
2. Genealogy DNA testing
I know who my grandparents are, also my great grandparents. From there, however, things start getting a bit fuzzy and I lose track of my ancestry. You may know your ancestry a bit more than I do.
But what if you could go, not just a few generations back, but centuries into the past? What if you could tell where your original ancestors were from, where they migrated to and the places they passed through?
This is the premise of genealogy DNA testing. It maps the genealogy of individuals and with the support of genealogy records, determines their genetic ethnicity and family history. You can for example, tell whether there is Asian ancestry in you even though you are white.
Major consumer genealogy DNA test providers include Ancestry.com, FamilyTreeDNA.com and the Genographic Project by National Geographic. You can see how their offerings compare at MyFamilyDNATest.com.
3. Health Screening
Perhaps one of the most important advancements in DNA testing is the ability to identify genetic markers for certain diseases.
By providing a quick saliva or cheek swab sample, consumers can now get their genes analyzed and checked for genetic markers of diseases like cancer, heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s. The biggest service provider in this category is 23andMe.com.
It is important to note that DNA testing for health screening purposes is not a hundred percent conclusive. This is because these tests do not analyze all the genes. There might also be many other disease causing genes that scientists are yet to identify.
The Future of Consumer DNA Testing
It’s pretty clear now that in time, direct to consumer DNA tests will continue to grow in popularity. More importantly, DNA testing will enter many more aspects of our lives and play an important role in more and more of our major life decisions. The technology behind these tests will also grow resulting in cheaper and more accurate testing.