“There’s an app for that.” Now there is an app that will perform a DNA test for you. It is free. It only takes seconds. And no additional hardware is needed. All you do is lick your phone. Really. I remember being similarly dismissive when someone told me there was an app to take your pulse. But that turned out to be true, too. Well, prepare to be astonished.
Lick It DNA is a recently released iPhone 6 app from Tongue In Cheek Swab, Inc. “It is easy to say that this is the most innovative app, ever,” said company president, Averyll Nabal. All you do is lick the screen, wait several moments, and the app gives you a view into your deep ancestry.
But you must have an iPhone 6. Nabal happened upon the idea when she started using the iPhone 6’s Retina HD Display with Apple’s new ResearchKit. ResearchKit is an open source technology Apple developed to encourage the creation of medical apps on the iPhone. (See “Now Everybody Can Do Their Part to Advance Medical Research” at https://www.apple.com/researchkit/.) She realized the display could be used to read a person’s DNA.
The breakthrough is not so unbelievable once you understand the chemistry. Sequences of nucleotides in our DNA are programmed to produce proteins. While DNA nucleotides are too small to resolve without expensive lab equipment, proteins are much larger. Different protein molecules have fairly unique electromagnetic signatures because protein molecules are asymmetric. If you can identify the proteins, you can deduce the DNA that produced them.
That’s where the iPhone 6 HD Retina display comes in. When you touch a capacitive touch screen, the phone registers differences in electromagnetic fields at each pixel of the display. Previous displays lacked the resolution to accurately detect something as small as a protein molecule. But the iPhone 6 has the necessary resolution and ResearchKit provides access to pixel-by-pixel measurements of the electromagnetic field.
A big hurdle faced by Lick It DNA was starting its database from scratch. It takes a large database for a DNA company to accurately predict deep ethnicity. The app description warns, “During our beta phase, ethnicity estimates may change each time you run the app. Over time, your results will get better and better. Check back often. As an early adopter, your results will always be free.”
“We’re getting over 5,000 downloads a day so it won’t be long before we top a million samples,” said Nabal.
The app utilizes the phone’s built in GPS to determine the location of the person providing the sample. I’m guessing that they use that data to try and determine what DNA belongs with what place. If that’s true, they may have problems with highly mobile populations, mass migrations, and melting pot localities. And they are going to need a really large database from all over the world. But at the rate they are going, that just may happen.
I showed the app to a friend, Scott Ward, who knows a lot about biochemistry. He was not impressed.
“The resolution of these displays is still not enough to detect any but the longest of STRs (short tandem repeats),” Scott said. STRs are repeated sequences of DNA nucleotides called markers. Each marker has a value indicating the number of times the sequence is repeated. The closer two people are related, the more alike their markers are. “To be big enough to be detected, a marker would have to have a value of at least 20 and there are few genealogically useful markers that long. This will never be anything more than a toy.”
Still, you can’t beat free. Download the app from the Apple iTunes Store.