Newsletter: Layoffs result as consumers think twice about DNA testing
I’m Business columnist David Lazarus, with a look today at home DNA tests.
These have been rough days for the DNA-testing business — an industry that sprang up seemingly overnight with promises of helping customers track down long-lost relatives or ancestors, or even spot a hereditary disease before symptoms arise. Millions of people have submitted saliva samples to see what might turn up.
Looks like that’s changing.
A few weeks ago, 23andMe, the second-largest company in the space, laid off 14% of its staff — about 100 workers — after sales came in lower than expected.
Now comes word industry leader Ancestry is similarly giving about a hundred workers, or 6% of its workforce, the heave-ho.
“Over the last 18 months, we have seen a slowdown in consumer demand across the entire DNA category,” the company said in a blog post. “The DNA market is at an inflection point now that most early adopters have entered the category.”
Which is to say, pretty much everyone who wanted to give home DNA testing a try has done so, and the company is having a hard time winning over new customers.
“Future growth will require a continued focus on building consumer trust and innovative new offerings that deliver even greater value to people,” Ancestry said.
Actually, future growth will depend on convincing people that they aren’t giving away their genetic privacy in return for some cheap thrills about maybe having historic roots in this or that country.
Such concerns have risen since law enforcement officials figured out they could solve cold cases by tracking down suspects through the DNA tests of relatives.
The most prominent such case was the arrest of a man suspected of being the Golden State Killer, a notorious serial killer and rapist who terrorized California from 1975 to 1986.
In 2018, authorities arrested Joseph James DeAngelo, using DNA from a distant relative that reportedly linked DeAngelo to the crimes.
This was a wakeup call for many consumers. It suddenly became apparent that what might have seemed at first like fun and games actually entailed having your DNA stored in corporate databases, accessible to public and private interests.
I’ll admit these tests can be fun. I did it and found that I’m 72.3% of Ashkenazi Jewish descent. I also learned I’m apparently 11.3% Scandinavian, 7.8% Spanish or Portuguese, and 3.1% Italian, which was news to both me and my parents.
I also did a test on my dog. He’s apparently part Saint Bernard. Here’s a pic. You tell me.
There’s entertainment value in products such as this, but experts say you shouldn’t base medical decisions on the findings of home DNA tests. Always speak with your doctor before any such moves.
The genetic-privacy aspect is more troublesome. Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, a Berkeley nonprofit organization, told me most testing firms make additional money by sharing user data with drug companies and others.
“I wouldn’t take one of these tests,” she said.
I suspect more and more people might feel the same as they learn about the business.
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In honor of DNA tests, some songs about science that weren’t written by Thomas Dolby. Elton John merits a nod with his ode to space travel (and this video from Iranian filmmaker Majid Adin is pretty awesome; this one from William Shatner, not so much). Also worthy of note, Oingo Boingo, Timbuk 3 and Coldplay. And this too-cool number from Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds.