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Why AI and Other Tech Is Making DNA Testing Easier

DNA Testing Is Becoming Easier: What It Means

A few decades ago, getting your DNA tested was incomprehensible. DNA testing was a capability exclusive to cutting-edge forensic scientists and was limited in capacity. Today, there are multiple reputable companies that offer DNA testing as a service; through mail, you can send in a small sample of your saliva, and get back a report that details your family history, your risk of having or passing on certain illnesses, and other factoids about your DNA makeup.

So what is it that's allowed us to have and afford these massive breakthroughs in the field of DNA?

Understanding of DNA

Human DNA is incredibly complex; there are more than three billion base pairs in your DNA, which would take an inordinate amount of resources to fully explore. Fortunately, we've made several advancements in understanding how DNA works; we've isolated key areas that control certain genetic factors, and can zoom into those areas when running an analysis. Modern companies therefore don't test or sequence your whole DNA; they reserve resources by focusing on specific snippets that are most important to you.

Artificial Intelligence (AI)

Last year, one of the biggest breakthroughs in genetic sequencing was Google's neural network DeepVariant-a machine learning algorithm designed specifically to sequence all 3 billion base pairs of your DNA. In 2017, DeepVariant won first prize in an FDA contest hosted to attract (and show off) the most important advancements in the field of genetic sequencing.

Rather than chopping up the DNA into chunks and using special lighting to identify individual base pairs, DeepVariant uses a complex algorithm to understand the likelihood of certain patterns based on initial knowledge, and uses enormous processing power to sequence the entirety of your DNA in record time. AI isn't perfect, but it's a powerful first step in transforming how we think about and analyze human DNA-and it's completely open-source, so anyone can gain access to it.

Cost Mitigation

Companies typically charge around $100 for a DNA test, which is pretty affordable compared to what it cost in previous ages. Part of this is due to advancing technologies (including software that can automatically run a genetic analysis), but another part is due to cost mitigation in other areas. How do companies mitigate their costs? By selling your genetic information to other companies.

If you read the privacy policy of whichever consumer DNA testing company you're using, you'll likely discover that they can take full ownership of the data related to your genetic profile. Each company has a massive database of their customers' DNA profiles, and can in turn sell that information to advertising companies or other companies who want to use that information to offer better products or advertise more appropriately to their consumers. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but does call your privacy into question; it also is a driving factor in making your genetic sequencing more affordable, so you might come to see it as a benefit.

FDA Intervention

Historically, DNA testing has been challenging to offer to consumers, due to the regulatory hurdles proposed by the FDA. However, partially in response to the high consumer demand for DNA testing, the FDA has loosened its guidelines; companies that offer information on customers' genetic profiles have to come to the FDA for a one-time review and test. From there, the company is free to operate how it chooses.

Advertising

Part of the boom in consumer DNA testing may not be due to advanced technology or decreasing costs, but rather the marketing and advertising brilliance on display by the entrepreneurs running these companies. For example, one major consumer DNA testing company spent $109 million on advertising in 2016 alone, just before the "big boom" of DNA testing in 2017. It could be that the availability and affordability of DNA testing only seems apparent to us because our attention has been intentionally attracted to it.

Within our lifetimes, a process that once cost millions of dollars is now available for less than $100-and it's thanks to more than just new technology that we've reached this point. True, we have AI algorithms and high-tech devices that make genetic sequencing easier to perform, but we also have companies that can cut operating costs by fully utilizing the genetic information they pull, and dedicated businesspeople willing to invest in marketing and advertising to make the idea more popular. Consumer DNA testing will only grow in prominence and accessibility in the future.

More Stories By Larry Alton

Larry Alton is an independent business consultant specializing in social media trends, business, and entrepreneurship. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.