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Genetics gets personal: Send your saliva and start chatting

DNA Molecule display

Photo: flickr/Net_Efekt

Millions of dollars in Google investments. Promises to reveal health risks and match ancestors via a database of celebrity DNA. The consumer genomics company 23andMe is the perfect storm of Web and biotech, replete with social networking, online privacy concerns and a big-name backer.

For $399 and up, customers can order a testing kit through 23andMe’s website. Using saliva samples, the company scans DNA and offers the scoop on whether or not you or your child may develop diabetes, sickle cell anemia or cystic fibrosis — contact info. for local support groups optional.

23andMe’s Relative Finder is Facebook-meets-family tree: browse and make contact with other members who match your DNA, and, as the site claims, “see if you share ancestors with famous people.” Online communities exist for 23andMe members predisposed to certain traits and diseases, and the pregnancy community consists of a number of mom bloggers who were personally recruited to join the site through perks like a free tour of Google headquarters.

But the high-profile company, co-founded by Anne Wojcicki, who is married to Google co-founder Sergey Brin, seems to be more hype than hard science.

In a time when the hefty service prices makes boutique genetic testing unaffordable to many, 23andMe — named after the 23 pairs of human chromosomes — recently raised its fees. Last year, the company had two rounds of employee layoffs, and co-founder Linda Avey left to start a foundation related to Alzheimer’s research.

In 2008, Time named 23andMe’s Personal Genome Service the Invention of the Year. The company threw celebrity-studded “spit parties,” where the guests donating their saliva samples included bold-faced names like Harvey Weinstein and Wendi Murdoch. Two years later, The New York Times reported that out of the company’s 35,000 customers, a quarter of them tested for free or for just $25.

23andMe isn’t the only company that offers what Johns Hopkins University’s Genetics & Public Policy Center calls “direct-to-consumer genetic testing.” Rival companies like Navigenics and Pathway Genomics offer similar services, but lack the star backing of Google.