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Biotechnology and health

Here are some actual facts about George Church’s DNA dating company

It’s called Digid8 and will try to use your genes to make sure you never meet the wrong person.
December 11, 2019
MS Tech (Sources: Getty, AP, Pixabay)

On 60 Minutes last Sunday, geneticist George Church made a passing comment about a genetic dating app his lab was developing that he said could wipe out inherited disease.

The feedback in the media—mainstream and social—was immediate and mostly negative. Deaf people took offense. Trans people took offense. Some scientists took offense. Eugenics!

None of the outraged hot takes offered any details on the app, but we now have exclusive details on the new DNA dating company spinning out of Church’s lab.

The startup, called Digid8, was incorporated in September by Barghavi Govindarajan, a self-described “Harvard-trained technologist, innovator & educator” who Church says is his cofounder in the venture.

The company takes its name from D8, internet slang for date, and will pursue what Church calls “whole-genome dating.”

The idea is to use DNA comparisons to make sure people who share a genetic mutation, like those that cause Tay-Sachs disease or cystic fibrosis, never meet, fall in love, and have kids.

With such recessive conditions, of which there are thousands, kids develop the disease if they inherit two risk genes, one from each parent. The chance of that is usually 25%. 

Church, whose lab gravitates towards provocative projects, says Digid8 is developing a genetic matching app that could run in the background on existing dating sites, “like GPS” to prevent those people from meeting through the services. 

Sequencing a genome still costs about $750, but costs are falling, and Church believes the expense could be incorporated into the subscription price of dating sites, which can run about $50 a month.

The Harvard professor says he’s funding the startup himself, along with some investors he didn’t want to name. On 60 Minutes, he claimed it could be a cheap way to eradicate thousands of diseases that cost “about a trillion dollars a year, worldwide.”

Church’s lab received research funding from sex-crime convict Jeffrey Epstein, so it’s not great timing for him to get into the dating game. That connection only added to the furious reaction to his 60 Minutes appearance.

Church, who says he wasn’t expecting 60 Minutes to air his comments about the dating app, on Wednesday rushed out a hastily written FAQ trying to explain his views.

Clickbait critics, he said, had not taken time to “think deeply about a complicated problem.”

According to the FAQ, a dater would still be compatible with 95% of other people. He said the app wouldn’t provide any health data to people, only use their genes to rule out risky matches. 

So is Digid8 eugenics? Yes and no. Eugenics usually refers to forced sterilization, imposed breeding, or extermination of people by a state. 

But yes, the product is trying to avoid the birth of people with serious diseases. And not everyone likes that idea. According to Vice News, it is a “horrifying” development that attacks marginalized people.

In reality, medicine already tries to avoid such conditions. “Preconception” genetic testing is common for couples planning to have children, and sometimes IVF embryos are tested and selected on the basis of their genes. Some expecting parents choose abortion after a negative test result.

“If you do it after you have already fallen in love, it’s mostly bad news by that point. A quarter of kids will be diseased,” says Church. “If you can go back in time before they fell in love, you get a much more positive message.”

The startup company (“Science is your wingman” is its motto) remains at a formative stage. Its website is a check-back-later page, and according to LinkedIn it only has one employee, Govindarajan.

Church said Govindarajan, who has tried to start a few companies previously, did not wish to be interviewed, but according to a job ad on the site, the company is “re-thinking dating and compatibility technologies for students as well as busy professionals” and is “keen on positively harnessing predictable factors that could impede our lives in the longer term.”

Church says he’s longed nursed the idea of using genetics to prevent disease. One of his inspirations is a Jewish group in Brooklyn, Dor Yeshorim, which tests teenagers in Orthodox communities and then uses the information to help arrange marriages. Rates of Tay-Sachs, a fatal neurodegenerative disorder more common among some Jewish groups, have dropped as a result.

The dating app would automate all that and bring it to everyone, says Church, but he says there’s not much new technology in it. “All the pieces are mature—we are just gluing together whole-genome sequencing with encryption with genetic matchmaking software,” he says.

An automated app could vastly expand the list of things being tested for. Current preconception tests can look for dozens of risk genes, but Digid8 could expand that list into the hundreds.

Yet DNA dating would, in theory, permit many applications that could be seen as troubling by some.

For instance, in some cultures people try to marry only within certain castes, clans, or tribes. A job ad posted on the Digid8 website claims the company is pursing an “untapped” market by creating a dating service that uses science to evaluate such “lineal compatibility,” an apparent reference to group self-segregation practices that occur in the Gulf region and in India

Church told us that the posting is in error and that he asked his cofounder to change it. He said the app won’t provide or use any ancestry information to facilitate those kinds of matches. “That is not part of the deal. It’s emphatically not our business model,” he says.

Another tricky question is what to do about people with so-called dominant disease genes, like the one for Huntington’s. Carriers of such mutations will almost definitely develop the condition themselves, and their kids will have a 50% chance of doing so, no matter what genes their partner contributes.

That information could certainly be useful—some daters might not want to meet someone who will develop Huntington’s.

But Church says the app won’t block dates for people carrying dominant disease genes. “We are saying that up front,” he says. “If they are attractive and healthy enough to go on a date, it doesn’t matter.”

Doesn’t it? Wasn’t the idea to avoid sick kids? The geneticists’ position doesn’t seem particularly consistent, but it really would be eugenics if your app tried to block a whole class of existing people from getting dates. 

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