How to Spend $1,900 on gene tests without learning a thing

Science and marketing clash in the “jungle” of direct-to-consumer DNA apps. It can’t be good when America’s most famous cardiologist, one with 114,000 Twitter followers, posts to social media that your product’s value is exactly “0.” Nor it is a great thing when comedian Stephen Colbert makes your industry a laughingstock on late-night TV, calling it “total bullshit.” That’s what happened this month to Helix, the high-profile spinout of gene-sequencing giant Illumina, which created the first online DNA test store where anyone can shop for genomic insights by submitting a saliva sample. The problem isn’t the tests that tell you about your ancestry or whether you’re a carrier of beta thalassemia. Those are based in solid science. What’s drawing critics is how scrolling through has quickly become a little like visiting the Sharper Image of DNA. But instead of air purifiers, bacon toasters, and other electronic gadgets that no one really needs, people with money to burn can spend $149 on a scarf whose pattern is personalized using their genes, DNA diet apps, or even genetically influenced wine recommendations. Eric Topol, an influential heart doctor and geneticist at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, says he’s had enough. To Topol, too many of these apps amount to genetic astrology. “The data has no basis. It’s pseudoscience—complete, utter nothing,” he says. He calculated that a consumer could spend $1,900 on 17 apps and learn almost nothing of value. What worries Topol is that the field of genetics could be overrun by misapprehensions, bias, and even privacy violations. “It’s a jungle,” he says. “It’s the mix of things that are proven and unproven that is really irresponsible, in my view. How is the consumer to know?”