DNA Friend is a new consumer genetics company that aims to rival 23andMe with its “fastest and freest DNA testing service.”
The only difference?
It’s a total parody.
DNA Friend, which has both a website and social media presence, is a creation of Thud, a new media project run by former Onion staffers and originally backed by Elon Musk. According to the Atlantic, Tesla’s CEO originally owned the business but sold it to former editors at the Onion — Ben Berkley and Cole Bolton — back in January. Musk once referred to the Onion “the greatest publication in the history of all conscious beings, living or dead,” indicating a deep affinity for satire.
The fact that Thud chose the DNA testing space as a first target is revealing, health experts suggest.
The space is booming, with at-home DNA testing company 23andMe alone claiming to have more than 8 million users. Ancestry, its chief rival, has more than 10 million in its database. But the market, which is expected to be worth more than $22 billion by 2024, is also under fire for a range of issues, including the lack of consumer privacy protections, recent involvements with law enforcement, and the questionable clinical utility.
“Consumer genetics companies have a challenging job of building more applications of genomics to attract more customers, but also building applications responsibly to ensure scientific validity,” said David Mittelman, a former chief scientific officer of Family Tree DNA, a consumer genetics company, and a geneticist.
“It’s a hard balancing act,” he said, noting that the parody site “highlights some of the more recent failures in the space.”
On its website and social media channels, DNA Friend rips into DNA testing companies for charging consumers to tell them obvious things, such as an estimate of eye and hair color.
“I always suspected I had brown eyes, but DNA Friend totally confirmed it,” said one customer in a testimonial.
In another fake note of user feedback, a man named Carl noted, “DNA Friend linked my DNA to a string of unsolved murders committed in LA during the ’80s” That’s a thinly veiled reference to the arrest of the alleged Golden State Killer, who was identified after more than 30 years when relatives uploaded their DNA to an open source website called GEDmatch. The arrest prompted debate about whether consumers are aware that their data could be used in criminal investigations.
Privacy is another hot topic, as DNA testing companies sometimes earn money by forging research deals with pharma companies (to be fair, these companies typically do ask for consent, although most customers do not always read the terms and conditions).
“We know that you’re entrusting us with every intimate detail of who you are,” the website jokes. “And we will never violate that trust by allowing your DNA to fall into the hands of anyone outside our corporate partnership network.”
DNA Friend also gets into some weaknesses with DNA testing, including the lack of participation from non-white, non-European users. That’s been an ongoing problem that several companies, including 23andMe, have openly acknowledged that they need to fix. Julie-Anne, another fake user, noted her excitement with finding out that her “saliva is mostly European.”
The site is hilarious, and worth spending some time browsing.
But like comedy often does, it also gets into some serious themes. That’s top of mind for many consumers, after the New York Times Editorial board published a piece warning consumers about the potential pitfalls of placing too much trust in their DNA test results.
These concerns centered around 23andMe’s breast cancer test, which only looks for mutations in a handful of places where they are known to appear, as opposed to all the mutations that are linked to higher-than-average breast cancer risk. In other words, the authors were concerned that 23andMe might provide a false reassurance to people who would otherwise seek medical care. (23andMe’s CEO Anne Wojcicki responded to the piece here.)
23andMe did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the parody site.