What’s in Your DNA?

Can genetics explain everything from your weight to your favorite wine?
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Simulated helix strand

For decades, biohackers, endurance athletes, and the preternaturally curious have attempted to use the latest scientific breakthroughs to be stronger, faster, healthier, and smarter. Now, they have an arsenal of personal genomics tools at their disposal.

The Road to Sequenced

Before we get into what these innovations mean for our lives today, it’s important to understand how we got here (and that “we” refers to scientific geniuses). DNA sequencing technology has existed since 1977 when scientist Fred Sanger developed the groundbreaking “dideoxy” method. This reliable, if cumbersome, technique required tallying nucleobases by hand. For his first full genome (of a virus), Sanger hand-tallied 5,400 bases—and won the Nobel prize.

Since then, DNA sequencing methodologies have improved at about the same rate as technology in general (aka staggering speeds). When the Human Genome Project completed their task of sequencing the ~3-billion base pair human reference genome in 2003, the cost of sequencing a human genome was tens of millions of dollars. Cut to 2014, and rapid improvements in both gene-sequencing and computing technology reduced that cost to about $10,000.

More recently, the personal genomics field has become increasingly available to consumers. Using a technology known as “array genotyping,” which reads specific locations within a DNA chain, a new crop of companies began promising targeted revelations about ancestral history and risk of carrier diseases in exchange for a sample of spit and as little as $99.

How Do You DNA?

Family trees were just the tip of the DNA iceberg—an iceberg that was hiding an abundance of genetic information with real life applications. There are now a variety of methods for determining your genomic sequence, most of which are still very costly. This list includes microarrays, targeted panels, whole genome sequencing, and a new belle of the ball: the Exome+ assay developed by an emerging startup called Helix.

So what exactly is Exome+? It’s a unique snapshot of your genome that Helix collects that starts, not surprisingly, with your exome. Your exome is the part of your genome that codes for protein, making it the best place to find variants that cause disease or affect traits. But Exome+ doesn’t stop there. It also offers a detailed view of hundreds of thousands of other areas that are relevant to your life today and in the future. To access additional information about your ancestry and other diseases, Exome+ also provides your mitochondrial DNA sequence.

To analyze the Exome+ assay, Helix uses Next Generation Sequencing technology, which unlocks one hundred times more data than typical at-home DNA tests. Next Generation Sequencing is able to read the entire sequence of genes (yes, all 3 billion pairs of As, Ts, Cs, and Gs) faster and cheaper than other methods. With this one-two punch of Exome+ and Next Generation Sequencing, Helix is able to offer DNA information previously restricted to the pages of science fiction novels (and the absurdly wealthy) with a gateway product that’s only $49.99—an almost baffling figure considering the multi-million-dollar price tag less than twenty years ago.

Everyday DNA

These advances in DNA information don’t stop at accuracy and affordability. Some of the most exciting progress revolves around what you can learn from and do with these genetic insights. Helix is at the forefront of this actionable approach. Once you send back your DNA Discovery kit, Helix stores your full genetic code in heavily encrypted online vaults where you can use it to unlock a variety of DNA-powered products. That’s one of Helix’s biggest differentiators: you only have to sequence your DNA once to access a whole marketplace of health, wellness, lifestyle, and entertainment products. Once you provide a saliva sample, you can experience as many products as you want without spitting again…and again…and again.

Helix collaborates with a reputable stable of partners like National Geographic, Azumio, and EverlyWell to make DNA information accessible and useful for all types of people. Ancestry buffs can trace the migratory patterns of their ancestors or even discover which famous historical figures may have been distant relations. Health and wellness enthusiasts can get personalized diet and weight-loss recommendations based on their genetic profile. Fitness nerds can learn their genetic predisposition toward high or low BMI, how susceptible they are to sports-related injuries, and their bodies’ ability to process everything from avocados to double shot lattes. Even oenophiles can get on board with personalized wine recommendations based on the flavor propensities in their genome.

Gene Dreams

The future of sequencing technology and DNA information in general is dizzying. Imagine a sports team that evaluates players for genetic predisposition to injuries in order to develop personalized training regimens to help reduce risks. A family that chooses a dairy-free, high-fat diet because they know it’s the healthiest option for their bodies. Or a couple planning their retirement in Arizona due to a genetic predisposition to arthritis.

One major advantage of Helix’s model is its ability to deliver relevant new genetic information to customers as medical discoveries emerge. As scientists isolate genetic traits that influence health, longevity, and other aspects of our biological legacies, Helix translates this information into products that customers can use to improve their lives. The best part? When new insights become available, you don’t have to provide another saliva sample to access them.

What’s even more exciting is that the lower the cost of sequencing, the more likely people are to participate, and the more data scientists will have at their disposal. While it’s important to note that companies like Helix keep their customers’ genetic data under lock and key, a culture of data-sharing could prove invaluable to scientists seeking answers to questions that were once purely hypothetical.

There are still important questions to answer about the future of DNA information, but one thing is certain: personal genomics is here to stay. Whether you use it to improve your health and longevity or simply kick back with a glass of genetically-selected Pinot Noir while telling dinner guests about your recently-discovered ancestor, Benjamin Franklin, your DNA information is more useful and accessible now than ever before.

This paid content was created by Slate Studios in partnership with Helix. No members of Slate’s editorial team were involved (or harmed) during production. Slate Studios is comprised of real-life writers, designers, and producers who dedicate their talents to branded storytelling.