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Biomedicine in museums

23andMe and bio-consumership: the new web-based convergence between bioinformatics, business, and the public engagement with science

By November 17, 2007No Comments

In an earlier post I discussed the Silicon Valley web-based genetic information up-start company 23andMe as an example of converging technologies.

23andMe and its public-engagement-with-genetics based business idea is the subject of a long and interesting feature article by Thomas Goetz in today’s Wired Magazine. 23andMe is now offering customers to scan their DNA for just $999 (by SNP genotyping from individual saliva samples with the help of the Illumina HumanHap550+ BeadChip).

The Wired-article raises a plethora of issues concerning the formation of ‘biocitizenship‘, or, to use a neologism, rather bio-consumership — that is, the convergence between bioinformatics, business, and the public engagement with science.

Goetz relates a meeting in September when Avey and Wojcicki invited their board of scientific advisers to review the website before it was launched. Much of the discussion circled around the question of how much they would have to teach their customers about genetics to enable them to understand the business offering. They ended with a compromise: “letting the genetics hobbyist geek out on the details while giving the novice a minimum of information”.

As Goetz writes, a web-based, customer-oriented bioinformatics company is not like Flickr or Facebook:

There’s nothing intuitive about navigating your genome; it requires not just a new vocabulary but also a new conception of personhood […] There’s a massive amount of information to comprehend and fears to allay before customers will feel comfortable with the day-to-day utility of the site.

23andMe’s solution to the public-engagement-with-genetics problem is to offer a rather rich menu of FAQs together with some basic animated tutorials (e.g., here and here) that explain the basic principles of genetics.

It will be fascinating to follow 23andMe.  I guess several other companies will soon follow along the same bio-consumership road.

(The Wired-article also includes a videochat with 23andMe co-founders Linda Avey and Anne Wojcicki who explain “how they’re helping people make sense of their genetic information”, but Goetz’s text is much more informative.)

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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