A recent episode of the Oprah Winfrey show highlighted Time Magazine’s 2008 Invention of the Year: 23andMe, a Google-backed startup introducing a retail DNA test. The available-for-purchase personal test provides information on health & traits as well as ancestry, for the user to “see your genes in a whole new light.”

23andMe is just one of the many companies attempting to benefit from the newest wave of genetic hype. Navigenics, deCODE, and SeqWright are all trying to get in on the action with personal DNA testing ranging from $399 to $2500.

So what is a personal DNA test? Basically, the user purchases a test kit, spits into a tube, and sends this back into a lab to be analyzed. The company then provides a report on any conditions or traits to which the user is predisposed. The test themselves detect common genetic variations, known as SNP’s. However, the links between these SNP and diseases can be unreliable. If a gene-test looks at 1 million variations of SNP, it is still missing at least 90% of total variation.

Research has elicited skepticism. According to Greg Lennon, a veteran of the Human Genome Project and biotech startups, as of right now, test results cannot live up to the glamorous marketing. While companies have done a good job of advertising these personal genetic testing services, they may be better off spending that time and money on developing a more reliable product.

23andMe may have Oprah’s stamp of approval but it appears retail genome testing has a long way to go.

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