With our future increasingly set to be lived online, the battle for control of our personal data will intensify. Some of us will continue to trade private details (ranging from our location to our shopping habits) for the convenience of mobile internet communication and digital experiences.
But what price should you put on your own DNA?
This is the logical outcome of being able to lock a record of our individual genetic code into a one-of-a-kind NFT authenticated on the blockchain.
What’s more, it is already happening.
All of us are composed of millions of cells each with their own complete set of instructions for (re)making us, called the genome.
Earlier this year, Harvard University geneticist George Church and a company he co-founded, Nebula Genomics in San Francisco, advertised their intention to sell an NFT of Church’s genome.
As reported in science journal Nature, Church was forced to walk back on his initial plan, instead auctioning NFTs featuring an artwork based on his likeness.
READ MORE: How scientists are embracing NFTs (Nature)
The stated reason, Nebula Genomics told Nature, was because the NFT and crypto markets declined in value. Some fellow scientists thought it was is a PR stunt as it so happens that Church’s Genome is sequenced and freely available as part of the Human Genome Project he helped to launch.
Church has history in whipping up the sector, having previously proposed creating a dating app based on DNA and currently intent on resurrecting the woolly mammoth.
READ MORE: Firm raises $15m to bring back woolly mammoth from extinction (The Guardian)
The journal speculates that in fact Church’s NFT Genome idea was testing the waters.
“Nebula Genomics already uses blockchain technology to allow 15,000 people whose entire genomes it has sequenced to grant temporary access to their data to specific users (such as pharmaceutical companies searching for links between genes and diseases). NFTs could in future provide a handy system to let customers make money from those exchanges.”
Nature reports other companies similarly experimenting with ways for customers to sell genomic data on blockchain marketplaces.
“The idea is to give users more control of their data and to direct profits straight to the individuals, thereby encouraging more people to get their genomes sequenced.”
READ MORE: Your DNA broker (Nature)
Selling personal genomes opens up ethical issues. Bioethicist Vardit Ravitsky, at the University of Montreal in Canada, asks whether any individual truly owns their genome, given that much of it is shared with family members. She also notes there are already debates about whether people should be allowed to make money from their biological resources, for example through sperm donation. The problem of selling data, she says, “will be the next generation of these issues.”
So there may be a market for selling your Genome into the scientific community. A financial incentive would boost the amount of Genome sequences for research, the goal of which in some cases is to find cures for diseases like cancer.
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Since an NFT retains the IP of its original creator in perpetuity no matter how many times it is traded, sliced and diced, it would gift the IP owner royalties in return.
There’s an obvious dystopian scenario here too, one that would no doubt interest a Hollywood script writer. If Church can rebuild a woolly mammoth using genetic editing then, in time, someone can surely reanimate a human.
What happens if someone owns our genome NFT and wants to meddle with it, whether we agree to it or not? What happens if we’re still alive and meet an identikit version of our younger selves, Gemini Man-style?
The factory scale minting of billions of genome NFTs, or even a black market exchange of our personal code, strips what is left of our privacy down to the bone.
It’s a digital Soylent Green.