This week FLG Content Manager, Liz Harley, considers the real and imaginary consequences of genomic apps.

We’re prone to the occasional flight of fancy in the FLG office. I think it comes from working in field with such an exciting, and potentially terrifying future. This week, following the announcement that Illumina are giving consumer genomics the app store treatment, our conversation naturally turned to what the genetic super villains of the future would look like. But I’ll get to that.

The premise of Helix is very simple: you supply the genes, they do the sequencing, and then you can choose to run your genome through any number of paid-for ‘apps’ provided by third party companies. In theory these services will provide information on everything from your health to your ancestry.

We did consider whether Helix might follow in the grand tradition of in-app purchases and allow you to collect tokens through some gene-themed mini games that could be put towards your next genetic test. But then there is the risk that your three-year-old could unwitting spend $3000 on checking whether you’re at risk of dementia or cancer while trying to get to the next level.

I told you, we’re fanciful.     

Such a service naturally raises security concerns: after all as a consumer you are trusting Helix with your genetic code, something that many people consider to be the most fundamental element of your identity.  And yet we happily, and probably unwittingly, give up oodles of personal information every day. Looking at the gadgetry on my desk at this moment it is likely that Google, Amazon, Samsung and at least three other tech companies could tell you where I live, where I am right now, and what I’m doing, and even what I’m going to do tomorrow. Many people would regard this level of information as far more intrusive than any genetic sequence, and yet we happily sign up for it every day when we fire up our phones. 

Helix has assured consumers that data security is a top priority. But if the recent Ashley Madison hack has taught us anything it is that the internet is a far more open book than many of us realise, or would be comfortable with. All of this, naturally, brought the FLG conversation around to super villains. 

As a budding genetic super villain the most nefarious thing I could do with genomes at present is collect them. Technology has not come far enough for anything as fanciful as human cloning. And, at least in the US, anti-genetic discrimination laws would make it difficult to perpetrate some form of insurance scam. Sequencing overlord Craig Venter’s DNA has even been sent into space, but the likelihood of the earth being attacked by clone armies of Craig Venters in the future, biologically teleported to the Earth demanding “give up your genomes”, is mercifully low (we believe).

Unlikely future dystopias aside, and back in the mundane world of the present, I can’t help but feel positive about Helix. Thus far, consumer interest in genetic sequencing has been pretty mixed. For most people, unaffected by genetic conditions, their genomes just aren’t that interesting or informative. But the genomic revolution is certainly upon us, and by tapping into popular app mania I see a unique role for services like Helix in informing and educating the public about genomic medicine and science. 

And for now, at least, it is far more risky to trust an app with your bank details or your personal proclivities than with your genome. 

At this point, Carl suggested that I reveal what my genetic super villain name would be. That would be telling.

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