Giving the Gift of a Virtual Gene

istock_000002326161xsmall.jpgEver since the social media site Facebook allowed users to develop third-party applications, there has been an explosion of various quizzes, icons, and virtual gifts that users can add to each others’ profiles. In addition to the various LOLcats, zombies, and werewolves that permeate Facebook these days, users of the site can now send each other genes courtesy of Genome Alberta, which supports genomic research in the Canadian province.

Genome Alberta, an arm of the Canadian province’s government that supports genomic research and education, has developed a Facebook gift application that allows users to “give the gift of a virtual gene.” The idea, according to the application’s website, is this: say your friend is tired of her boring brown eyes – why not send her the gene HERC2, one form of which causes otherwise brown eyes to turn blue. Or say one of your friends suffers from Restless Leg Syndrome; why not send him the gene BTBD9, which has been associated with the disorder. Once sent, each ‘gene’ shows up as a gift on the user’s Facebook profile. There are also more unusual genes available for gifting such as HGO, which was one of the first human genes to be sequenced. When mutated HGO causes alkaptonuria, a rare disease that turns a person’s urine black and causes damage to their heart valves and cartilage. Each virtual gene is accompanied by a brief description, so recipients can gain some understanding of the science behind the gift they have received.

Unfortunately, users cannot use this application to see which versions of these genes they have. But with 23andMe’s Personal Genome Serviceâ„¢, our customers can determine whether they or their friends and family do indeed have the version of BTBD9 that is associated with increased risk of Restless Legs Syndrome, as well as genetic variations that have been associated with dozens of other traits. Upon learning their genetic make-up, our customers can then send Genome Alberta’s gift of a virtual gene to their friends via Facebook, and an invitation to share their real genetic information through 23andMe!

Photo by Pali Rao/istockphoto