DateNA: George Church and Genetic Tinder

Imagine creating a profile on your new favorite dating app.  You’re asked to fill in your name, age, interests...and personal genome? The app advertises that it will only match you with potential partners whose genetic profile is compatible with yours, specifically when it comes to having children. No more getting unpleasantly surprised after genetic testing right before you and your partner decide to try for kids--the app will eliminate that potential.

This app would solve a lot of problems, according to George Church of Harvard Medical School. Church is renowned for his research on the human genome, which is the genetic code that defines our species. Genetic codes are made up of DNA, which contains billions of bits of information that tell our bodies how to form.

The vast majority (99.9%) of all peoples’ genomes are identical; only the remaining .1% accounts for our differences, like blood type and hair color.    

The vast majority of our genes--the individual portions that make up the entire genome--are beneficial or harmless. But occasionally, a piece of DNA will randomly mutate and the resulting gene will be harmful. This is the case for genetic, or hereditary, diseases such as Cystic Fibrosis, Sickle Cell Anemia, and Tay-Sachs Disease. These diseases are the result of a mutation in a specific piece of DNA which results in characteristic symptoms. If you were to sequence, or decipher, an individual’s genome, you would be able to tell if they had any of these diseases, because it would be encoded in the DNA.

Every individual has two copies of every gene because we receive DNA from both parents, one set from the egg and one set from the sperm. Cystic Fibrosis, and the other diseases above, are called “recessive” mutations, because you must have the mutation on both copies of your DNA to show the symptoms of the disease. This could only happen if you received a mutation from both of your parents, which means both of your parents would be “carriers.”  A carrier is someone who only has one copy of the mutation. They may not show symptoms themselves, but they could still pass the mutation to their children.

You might not know you are a carrier for a disease, which is where a dating app that knows your genome would come in handy. The app would know your carrier status and would not match you with anyone who was also a carrier for that same disease, thereby preventing a situation where two carriers had children and their child received two copies of the mutated gene. You would never know when the app chose not to match you with someone, but you would know that any matches you received were individuals whose genetic profile was compatible with yours.

But isn’t screening for the safety of your potential future children a big overzealous for someone you’re just deciding to swipe right on?

George Church believes it is in fact the perfect time. Couples who have been married or committed for years will have a much harder time accepting the risks to procreation than will total strangers who haven’t yet gotten to know each other. And if the app doesn’t tell you when it hides a match, you’ll never know what you missed.

An anonymous, local version of this dating service has been in practice in a Brooklyn Orthodox Jewish Community. Tay-Sachs is a disease most common in Ashkenazi Jewish populations, and children born with the disease rarely live past the age of five. After his child was born with Tay-Sachs, Rabbi Yosef Eckstein began investigating ways to prevent two carriers of Tay-Sachs from getting married without creating stigma within the community. The resulting solution was to give all high schoolers a genetic test but not let anyone know the results. All results went instead to a third party group which matched results with anonymous identification numbers. If a couple wanted to get engaged, their identification numbers were called in for confirmation. If both were carriers, the third party would recommend against the match, but no specifics would be given.

So why not have everyone sequence their genome and upload it to Tinder? One question is where it would stop. Recessive genetic diseases like Tay-Sachs seem like straightforward tests to include, but what about a predisposition for high blood pressure? Height? Even intelligence? What would qualify as critical genetic information to have before picking a parental partner would differ between individuals, but what if someone refused to grab coffee until you sent over your results for a few DNA sequences associated with IQ level?

Another concern is data privacy. Individuals already feel exposed through inadequate online security, such as what occured in the Equifax breach in 2017. But while the theft of credit cards and social security numbers are hugely concerning, the implications of genetic data falling into the wrong hands are even more severe.

The 2008 Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act says life insurance companies cannot discriminate based upon genetic information.
The 2008 Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act was passed to prevent employers and health insurers from discriminating based upon the results of genetic testing, but it doesn’t set any standards for how companies handle genetic data or individual rights when that data is breached.

Before we start giving our literal life codes to even more consumer companies (see 23andMe and we need to fill the gaps in data protection.

It is also worth considering that the theory of the app presumes the critical necessity of “natural” conception. Couples who find out that they are both carriers for a disease have multiple options besides continuing to conceive, including IVF and adoption. But these options are often expensive and not available to all couples, in which case the app could help prevent difficult situations when couples have to choose between the risk and the desire to start a family.  

The details still need to be worked out, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the next big dating app takes matchmaking to a genetic level.

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Sonja K. Eliason

August 6, 2019