Googling Your Genes?

Posted by Osagie K. Obasogie July 18, 2007
Biopolitical Times
When Google recently invested nearly $ 4 million in a new gene mapping startup called 23andme, many dismissed it as little more than nepotism. After all, 23andme's co-founder (Anne Wojcicki) recently married Sergey Brin, Google's co-founder.

But, CNN/Fortune's Adam Lashinsky suggests that the investment was more than a lavish wedding gift; Google, in his words, has a strong business interest in "getting all that information about the human genome into its database." Lashinsky's assertions largely come from an interesting segment in David Vise's 2006 book The Google Story:

Over dinner and plenty of wine in February 2005, Sergey Brin discussed the prospects for genetics and Google with the maverick biologist Dr. Craig Venter … Brin had brought along his friend Anne Wojcicki, a health care investor whose sister is a senior executive at Google. Seated nearby was early Google investor Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.

Brin has also shown interest in other aspects of human biotech. He took a notable interest in Proposition 71 - the statewide initiative that set aside $3 billion to fund stem cell research in California - by donating $100,000 to Robert Klein's campaign. And Google recently invited transhumanist researcher Aubrey de Gray - who sees aging and death as "diseases" that biotechnology can "cure" - to deliver a "TechTalk" on human enhancement.

It's not clear if or to what extent Google's technology will figure in 23andme's business plan. Yet, it seems likely that what Google did to the internet - making previously disperse and obscure information widely available to the public - is what 23andme might want to do with genetic information, both mine and yours. (Those who are less than satisfied with Google's privacy practices might find this prospect a bit unsettling.) It also seems like 23andme's underlying worldview does not depart significantly from traditional Silicon Valley culture: that we can depend on technology to bring us all together and solve the world's social problems. How well this ideal carries over into human biotech remains to be seen.