An editorial in the February issue of Nature Genetics makes a number of excellent points about the potential that personal genomics services such as 23andMe have to directly engage the public in research, not just as subjects but as collaborators.
23andMe was founded in part to harness the natural curiosity that results when people can see how new knowledge applies to them personally. When new customers join 23andMe they are not just getting access to their genomes and the scientific knowledge that gives it meaning — they are also contributing their genetic information to our research database. The hope of 23andMe is that they will be willing to take the next step and contribute additional information to enable the creation of even more knowledge.
As the Nature Genetics editors observed, “it would be wrong to underestimate the motivational potential inherent in handing people their genomes and asking them to participate in finding out more … “
Once our database is large enough, we plan to ask our customers to provide additional information beyond their genetic data — it could be anything from symptoms of autism to shoe size. That information would be used in research that could discover even more genetic links to traits and diseases.
Participation in these follow-on studies will be voluntary, but we believe that our customers’ curiosity and generosity will motivate them to take part. Our customers may even want to propose and help organize their own studies.
The beauty of this arrangement is that every discovery our customers contribute to has the potential to make their own data that much more meaningful and valuable, and we think it could lead to rapid advancement in understanding of the human genome in general. We envision a virtuous circle of inquiry and discovery, as our customers repeatedly lend their data for research and reap the benefits of the new knowledge it produces, whether directly or indirectly.