These DNA Startups Want to Put Your Whole Genome on the Blockchain

In 2018, people started using the blockchain to battle deepfakes, track sushi-grade tuna from Fiji to Brooklyn, and even cast a (symbolic) vote. It was only a matter of time before someone figured out how to put all 6 billion bits of your genetic source code on the blockchain too. Starting this week, a startup called Nebula Genomics is doing just that, offering whole-genome sequencing for free, as a way to stock up for its real ploy: a blockchain-based genetic marketplace.

Of course, nothing is free free. But if you’re willing to cough up some health information and refer your friends, you can earn special Nebula tokens that can help pay for a lo-fi sequence, the equivalent of a first draft that someone went over once with a subpar spell-checker. If you don’t want to answer survey questions about your donut and negroni habits or your family’s history of heart disease, you can get the same quick-and-dirty sequence for $99. But if you do answer the questions, and if a researcher or pharmaceutical company finds them interesting, they might pay to upgrade you to the Cadillac of whole genomes (what’s called 30x coverage, in the gene biz). In exchange, you grant them permission to study your data.

This offer comes bundled with all the promises of security, anonymity, and transparency (and money!) at the core of the blockchain’s immutable ledger. Once users have their genome sequenced, they can charge a fee, in tokens, to anyone who wants to access it. In the future, those tokens can be redeemed for additional tests and products that will further interpret your DNA.

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Users also retain more control over their data than is typical. Anyone who’s been granted access to an individual’s de-identified DNA can only crunch analyses on that data using Nebula’s own computers. Buyers get to see the results, never the raw data itself. The only person who can download DNA data from the platform is the person whose DNA it is. The goal, says Nebula co-founder and chief scientific officer Dennis Grishin, is to create an environment where users can cheaply learn about their DNA and share it with scientists, while protecting themselves from potential privacy breaches.

The field of DNA testing has long been stuck with a circular problem. With whole genome sequences running about $1,000 each, the tests are so expensive, and the privacy concerns serious enough, that adoption has been slow. Further, only about two percent of people who get sequenced will turn up any information that could help them treat or stave off potential health risks. Your DNA could tell you more, if scientists had more genomes to work with. But the incentives for individuals just aren’t there yet.

This entrenched chicken-and-egg situation is the reason the federal government is spending $4 billion to sequence and study a million people across the US, asking them to donate their blood and spit and, eventually, giving them their results for just the price of participation. Now Nebula is joining the trend with its freemium approach.

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