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MIT Technology Review

A new personal genome test is free, but only if you bare all about your life

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A startup company says it will give people free genome reports if they’re willing to answer detailed questions about their health, drinking habits, and more, according to Xconomy

The deal: Nebula Genomics plans to create rough-and-ready maps of people’s genomes, similar to tests from companies like 23andMe. It costs $99 if you want to pay up front, but you can also earn credits toward a free test if you answer some detailed questions about yourself. 

The catch: The company wants to sell information about you to drug companies. Cofounder Kamal Obbad says that will only happen if you give permission. You can pick and choose what studies to participate in, he says. 

The big picture: By amassing huge troves of health and DNA data on hundreds of thousands of people, scientists are trying to zero in on the genetic predictors of disease. By giving away a DNA test, Nebula is hoping to quickly get into the game too. 

“We are figuring out the business model,” Obbad says. “But we’re making a bet that genetics is going to take off.”

What you learn: Nebula will create a picture of your genome that’s quite broad but relatively low in accuracy, known as a “1x genome.” That means each of the billions of DNA letters is read out just once on average (whereas more accurate “30x” sequencing can remove errors).

It’s therefore not a health test, Obbad says: “If you want health or medical information, this is not the solution for you.” 

Instead, the company will tell users about their ancestry and various traits linked to athletic performance, height, and eye and hair color, as do companies like 23andMe and Ancestry.com. 

Personality traits: Obbad says Nebula will also report on what your DNA says about personality traits such as happiness or risk-taking tendencies. It even claims to be able to make predictions about educational attainment. The meaning of such personality reports or IQ predictions remain controversial, to say the least.