The first draft of the book of genes will be written in China

By Yi-Ling Liu
4 min read
(Image credit: Bigstock/pcatalin)

On the website of 23Mofang, a Chinese genetic testing company, the first thing you see is a photo of three hikers trekking up a mountain at dawn. The sun is rising. The path ahead stretches onwards, hazy and mist-filled. Double-helix-shaped halos waft above their heads. “Discover the secret of your genes,” the caption reads in bright, white letters. “Answer the questions of your heredity.” The rhetoric of the advertisement is NatGeo travel brochure meets choose-your-own adventure novel meets New-Age Bible. “Who am I?” it continues. “Where am I from? Where am I going?”

With over 200,000 users, 23Mofang is the largest of more than a hundred companies in China offering genetic testing services to consumers. Alongside companies includingWeGene, Novogene, and 360° Gene, the company is thriving off declining costs in sequencing technology and surging demand for testing services among Chinese consumers. Fifteen years ago, it cost $13 billion to sequence a human genome. Now, a 23Mofang testing kit costs $43. Since the company was founded in 2015, its sales have surged a hundred-fold, and only continue to grow.

The archetypal 23Mofang customer, according to CEO Zhou Kun, is a twenty-something, white-collar urbanite, living in one of China’s metropolises, part of a generation of highly-mobile, tech-savvy young Chinese who want to understand who they are, where they are from, and who they will become. The tests appeal to a growing desire to know oneself, but also an age-old Chinese cultural fascination with reading and altering one’s fate with practices like reading astrological signs or practicing fengshui.

According to its website, a user is able to learn not only if they have high hereditary risk of heart disease, but also their ancestral origins and alcohol tolerance, their ability to “learn from errors” and, tendency to deal with stress as a “warrior or worrier.” “Mofang” means Rubik’s Cube in Chinese—because our genes, explained Zhou, are “diverse, multi-faceted, and operate by a distinct set of rules.” The process is simple. Step 1: Sequence genes. Step 2: Know thy DNA. Step 3: Change thy destiny.

A couple months ago, I decided to give the test a go, and found the steps to self-discovery were alluringly simple. Step 1: Order a package online. Step 2: Spit saliva in a test-tube and mail it to the company’s headquarters. Step 3: Wait for results. Two weeks after I mailed off my saliva, my smartphone buzzes. Giddily, I open up a 23Mofang app, which rattles off the “highlights”: apparently, I am 4% Korean (mildly surprising), flush when I drink alcohol (not surprising), have a high tendency for “altruism” (flattering), and have a “strong episodic memory” (which may explain my constant state of sappy nostalgia).

My scientist friends roll their eyes and dismiss these tests as “entertainment genetics” — a high-tech novelty toy or a glorified set of tarot cards. But their rising popularity in China gives us a direct glimpse into a world in which we understand our fate not as something written in the stars, but in our DNA, a world in which our destiny is not shaped by the whims of a capricious cosmos, but by the objective metrics of science and numbers. This is a world in the data will tell us what to do. After all, this happens already. Netflix tells us what we like to watch; Tinder shows us who we want to date. Now, 23Mofang tells us where we’re from, whether we’ll get sick, and how we deal with stress. So it goes.

If this world is indeed the future that lies in store for us, China will set foot into this world first. Why? Because genomics is like a book. Like Wikipedia, the book of genes thrives off crowd-sourcing; the more input the merrier. Understanding the book in all its complexity—to accurately make sense of each paragraph, sentence, and phrase—requires a massive population.

China is big, and in the field of genomics, the size of the data set is everything. Therefore, it is in China, where 700 million netizens are interacting on handful of platforms, churning out data—the algorithmic fuel and fodder for technologies we cannot even begin to conceive of—at an unprecedented rate that “artificial intelligence will unlock the power of the genome,” Mirza Cifric, the CEO of Boston-based genomics company Veritas Genetic explained to me. It is in China that the first comprehensive draft of the book of genes will be written.

Moreover, according to Cifric, the potential of sequencing technologies in China can be compared to the country’s transition from the landline to mobile economy: a lack of existing alternatives means that the genomics industry will have the capacity to leapfrog and jump more quickly to the next emerging technology. If the last decade and gave rise to Internet giants Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent, what will the next decade herald? Last year, a Chinese scientist claimed the first gene-edited babies, switching off the HIV-gene of a pair of Chinese twins. It stirred uproar among the scientific community, where the ethical implications of such a move remain opaque and the legal framework undeveloped.

We are hurtling into a world where, writes philosopher and Silicon Valley darling Yuval Noah Harari in his book Homo Deus, “new techno-religions may conquer the world by promising salvation through algorithms and genes.” Whereas the Book of the Tao, a seminal book in Chinese philosophy, encouraged us to embrace the unknown and unpredictable, the Book of Genes tells us that our lives can be predicted, quantified, edited.

Admittedly, my genetic test results are still crude and potentially misleading—a glorified Myers-Briggs personality test at best. Sure, an app can now tell me that I’m a partly-Korean, Asian-flushing, sappy nostalgic. But there are still so many things that it cannot extrapolate from my DNA. The app says that I’m from Northeast China, but can it explain why I feel torn between the humid coast of Hong Kong in spring and the New England woods on a crisp, November day? It tells me that past episodes imprint themselves deeply in my memory, but can it show me how to let the difficult ones go?

Know thyself. The Socratic adage is more relevant than ever before, as machines know begin to know us better than we do. For now, I can figure out how to do that the old-fashioned way, without an algorithm. At least until the technology catches up.