Does DNA Dating Pass the Genetic Sniff Test?
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So, what’s in your genes? What might sound like a geeky, if not cheeky, pick-up line is a sign of our times. Apparently, DNA dating is a thing. We somehow missed this trend. Of course, based on our romancing skills—we are a bunch of MBAs, after all—we vaguely recall a website launched back around 2000 called Hot or Not that harkens back to a simpler time of objectifying the opposite sex (or same sex). The eventual rise of dating websites like Match.com and Plenty of Fish pretty much put Yente the Matchmaker out of business. Then love went mobile. The granddaddy of today’s dating apps, Tinder, popularized the whole swipe right-swipe left thing that reduces romance to an activity that can be done while waiting in line for the toilet at a dive bar. Now there are dating apps for every proclivity, from the polyamorous to the playfully kinky.
And then there’s DNA dating. DNA dating isn’t actually all that new, as some of these companies have (perhaps somewhat amazingly) been around for a decade or longer. However, there seems to be a revival of sorts underway with DNA dating, possibly thanks to the proliferation of DNA testing companies like 23andMe, Ancestry.com, and Family Tree DNA. Many of these companies are moving well beyond simple ancestry tests with at-home DNA tests for things like determining paternity or identifying your skin’s genetic potential. Then there are startups combining artificial intelligence with DNA to personalize nutrition. Perhaps more useful are companies hawking at-home hereditary cancer tests. Even 23andMe, once Public Enemy No. 1 with the FDA for these sorts of direct-to-consumer shenanigans, has received approval for an at-home screening test of a gene associated with increased chances of developing breast cancer.
The Stink Behind Sexual Chemistry
But is there any science to DNA dating? Yes and no. One company called DNA Romance (formerly known as SingldOut) offers a whole reference section of scientific papers about sexual chemistry. The idea behind DNA Romance and most DNA dating apps comes down to the olfactory sense. It turns out that we can sniff out our genetic compatibility—and that opposites do indeed attract.
A genetic component of the immune system is major histocompatibility complex (called HLA in humans). The premise is that people with a greater diversity of HLA genes are more likely to be attracted to each other. In theory, this makes sense evolutionarily, because those couples with more variety in their HLA genes would produce offspring with a broader genetic immune response to more diseases. That would certainly be a valuable trait for the zombie apocalypse.
A somewhat famous study back in the 1990s involved women sniffing sweaty T-shirts that had been worn by men for three days straight. An analysis found that the female participants were attracted to the stench of the men whose HLA genes were most different from their own. A more recent study in 2016 investigated this olfactory ogling and concluded that “HLA mediates mate behavior in humans”. But, as the investigators also noted, there’s a lot more to relationships than smelling good.
But, for the moment, let’s pretend stink is the new sexy. So, roll in some dead fish and read about some of the companies helping people make a love connection with DNA dating.
Smells Like Love is in the Air
DNA Romance is the only DNA dating services with any sort of disclosed funding numbers: $600,000 raised back in 2014. The San Diego startup, founded that same year, matches DNA data with a person’s personality data from the venerable Myers–Briggs test that locates 16 personality traits on a spectrum, such as extrovert versus introvert. You can upload your DNA tests from the usual suspects, though DNA Romance also links to a free DNA test that is part of a genetics project at the University of Michigan.
Swiss DNA dating service GenePartner, founded in 2008, partners with other online dating sites by providing the genetic expertise in the love equation. The company says it worked with the Swiss Institute for Behavioural Genetics to develop a formula that combines the HLA diversity theory with other “evolutionary” factors that measure a couple’s genetic compatibility and makes “an accurate prediction of the strength of their basis for a long-lasting and fulfilling romantic relationship”. The test costs $249, but that seems like a small price to pay for long-lasting romance.
Houston-based Pheramor is the latest DNA dating service to hit the app store. The startup builds your DNA dating profile through genetics and social media accounts such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like. Things like hashtags, check-ins, likes, and posts give insight into a user’s likes, dislikes, and interests, according to the company. Social media also serves to prevent dating “fraud” by showing that the “rugged athletic type” is someone who takes selfies of himself pounding beers at Packers games.
Founded in 2013, Toronto-based Instant Chemistry leaves the matchmaking to you but then provides the genetic tools to tell you if the girl of your dreams is a DNA nightmare. It offers a Couples Kit (only $149 with free shipping) to determine whether the other person is really relationship material. It goes beyond the usual sniff test, also analyzing four genetic variants linked to emotional response, empathy, risk-taking, and adventurous behaviors—what the company refers to as neurocompatibility. The company is led by a team of four PhDs who have bona fide credentials, even if one of them worked as a co-host of a Dr. Phil spinoff.
It’s What’s on the Inside that Counts
Other companies are putting a twist on the DNA dating paradigm by offering DNA-based personality tests.
One such company is Karmagenes, which claims it can link specific genetic regions with 14 major personality traits such as “innovative, social, decisive and risk taker”. Founded in 2015 and based in Switzerland, Karmagenes says it can help people to reach their full potential in love and life—starting for as little as $95 for a psychological evaluation. You will need $199 to add the DNA personality screening. A full plan to reach self-actualization will cost $484. The combined nature-nurture report reads like an astrology write-up in the back of your local alt weekly. Here’s the assessment for a person who scores “high” on both the DNA and psychological screenings on Self Awareness:
You can identify, process, and store information about yourself. You know all the details and can easily state how you would react to certain issues. You are not just self aware; you have great skills at reading those around you as well.
And, of course, there is a “proprietary algorithm” crunching all the data.
While we’re not scientists, there’s something about DNA dating that just doesn’t smell right to us. Sure, there’s real research behind some of these broader claims about genetic influences on the initial chemistry between two people. But while science has made extraordinary breakthroughs in genetics, we are far from developing gene therapies for disease, especially the most chronic condition of all—love. Can’t we just meet that special someone like they used to in the old days: while waiting in line for the toilet at a dive bar?