Consumer genetics companies like 23andMe hope to make a killing off our DNA. For years, we’ve given them access to our most intimate health-related information: our genetics and the diseases that plague us, allowing them to build biological data empires. In return, they’ve given us a glimpse into the molecule that acts as the blueprint on which our bodies and mind are built.
But what if we could sell our own DNA and bank the spoils from the sale? That’s essentially what Dutch artist Jeroen van Loon is doing. He’s put his entire genome up for sale on the appropriately named website, Cellout.me.
“The buyer of Cellout.me will own an extremely personal ‘self portrait’ and will become co-owner of the artist’s DNA,” reads van Loon’s website. He’s basically hawking the ultimate selfie.
The eBay-style auction is part of an art project that’s currently on “display” on the web and in an exhibition at the Kunst aan de Schinke museum in Amsterdam that has the computer server hosting van Loon’s genetic code. Right now, his full genome is going for about $500, which is more than double what a 23andMe test will run you. But the 23andMe test only gives you information about snippets of DNA. van Loon’s “product” is lab quality, meaning it’s been scanned 30 times and is basically error free. It’s kind of a bargain! The cheapest full-genome read you can get nowadays is roughly $1,000.
But a flash-sale, of course, isn’t the point. van Loon is an artist who focuses on digital culture. Some of his past works have explored how we relate to the Internet and online bullying. With this project, he didn’t want to explore our present digital culture, but instead transport us to a future in which DNA data is a commodity. He foresees that easy access to DNA information will have ethical, privacy and financial implications.
“Since DNA technology is something that will become very influential,” he told me in an email, “I thought it would be interesting to sell my DNA data, just to see what kind of questions it would trigger.”
He doesn’t foresee people actually selling their DNA, but others do. Entrepreneurs have been here before. In 2013, I profiled Miinome, a small Minneapolis-based startup, which tried to build a platform to make money off their genes by allowing them to sell their data to marketers and researchers. Ultimately, this genetic marketplace didn’t succeed, but it pointed to a future that could materialize if there’s more of a push for data ownership.
“If you keep all that data, people will be able to sell themselves, especially if you have a rare disease because there will be a market for clinical trial testing. It will be a bit like the eBay for bodies,” a medical entrepreneur told me in 2013.
While the legal “eBay for bodies” isn’t quite here, there are websites, like Human For Sale and Cadaver For Sale, that let you calculate how much your body is worth, dead or alive. The sites seem to be stunts to get data, but you get the idea. There is actual research into how much body parts are worth on the black market. For instance, on the black market, a pint of blood is worth roughly $350, a liver almost $160,000, and a heart $650,000.
DNA, though, is easier to sell (or license) because it’s just data. Unlike a heart, which can only go to one person, DNA data can be copied on a disk and disseminated infinitely. If you’ve got DNA that’s special in some way, you might have a resource on your hands that researchers want to tap—and, there’s a lot of value in that.
The problem is that DNA, unlike an organ or a piece of art, isn’t owned by a single individual. “DNA data is data that ‘belongs’ to a bloodline, a family, a group of humans. It is not only my data, but it—or a part—also belongs to my parents, my sister and my son,” van Loon told me in an email. “Keeping it private or public should be a decision made with all the people that have a relationship to the data. Of course this is very difficult.”
Geneticists and ethicists still don’t fully understand how sharing DNA publicly will affect future generations. van Loon says he was scared at first to take on the project, but decided the questions the project would pose—and potentially help answer—were worth it.
There are 333 days left to place a bid on Loon’s genetic code. Bid away. You never know. His art genes could be worth a lot one day.