Could personality traits be linked to DNA?
Companies and startups regularly approach me to test their app, digital health solution, health tracker or genetic test, and I usually nod approval since I’m really curious and enthusiastic about the latest developments. Kardia. ECG Dongle. Viatom O2 Sleep Monitor. MyDNA. Fitbit. Just to name a few. It is generally accepted that not a single device can get an overall perfect review, so some had flaws either in the design according to my taste or missed some features, but generally I strived for a balanced, careful and exhaustive review. However, I have never been more skeptical about anything else before than Karmagenes. This Switzerland-based company contacted me to test their genetic service.
The emerging start-up claims to tell you the concealed 14 different behavioral characteristics based on their top-notch biotechnology by analyzing the DNA from your saliva sample. Through their product they promise to explain to you how much your DNA relates with you being: Optimist, Risk taker, Decisive, Sex driven, Social, Self-aware, Bon vivant, Spontaneous, Strategic, Emotional, Calm, Stress tolerant, Confident and Innovative.
Moreover, the company has the intent to use such information eventually for personal or professional matchmaking services. To find your soulmate or your future boss based on your genes. Which would be quite peculiar, at least for my taste.
As a physician with a PhD in genomics, I was suspicious from the first day I heard about them. I didn’t believe them. That’s why they offered me a free test.
Could Karma get on well with genes?
My general suspicion started with their name, which is destined to express the essence of every company. Karma in Hinduism and Buddhism refers to actions, thoughts and intentions originating from our own choices as well as their consequences in the world around us. It is deeply connected to religious and spiritual beliefs, which has little in common with genetics and the scientific method. Moreover, they link behavioral traits to DNA, through which the concept of choice being prevalent in Karma becomes questionable through the predestined nature of DNA. But that’s only in their name.
As it seems, I’m not the only one who did not trust Karmagenes at first sight. They started a crowdfunding campaign on the popular crowdfunding page, Indiegogo. They managed to raise $2555 from 30 backers, basically 10 per cent from the $25,000 they wished for. And although sometimes crowdfunding could go way out of hand with supporting crazy projects – remember when a guy crowdfunded his potato salad on kickstarter? -, usually it shows the viability of a project.
For me, another telling sign to watch out was the lack of authentic recommendations on the company’s otherwise nicely designed and informative website. While the list of their partners and also their press coverage is very impressive – Karmagenes was featured among others on The Financial Times or CNN -, the stories of users who already tried their service are mostly anonymous. It is quite strange knowing that the strength of a recommendation lies in the authenticity of the users endorsing that particular service.
Furthermore, based on my studies and research, I am convinced that certain traits ranging from multifactorial conditions such as diabetes or high blood pressure to features such as height and personality are hard, if not impossible, to determine with quantifiable genetic parameters. But I decided to see the Karmagenes test and results for myself, and I truly wanted to give a fair chance to the company. Here is my verdict.
The Karmagenes test
So after I accepted the free test, I received a sampling kit from the company. It included two sticks with which I could provide buccal swab samples in about 2 minutes. I’m not supposed to eat, drink, smoke or use chewing gum 30 minutes before providing the sample. That was simple and fast.
I mailed the package back to them and received the next step, a survey containing questions related to my personality and psychological background. I’m disappointed to say that but the statements and multiple choice questions could have been also on the pages of Cosmopolitan. On a scale ranging from very accurate to very inaccurate you have to rate the following sentences, for example: “I worry about things” or “I’m quiet around strangers” or “I take charge”. If you ever filled out such a questionnaire, and you have an overall healthy image about yourself, you will easily get an idea what kind of personality traits they are measuring and also what kind of responses you could give in order to arrive at a certain result. But, I filled it in with my best knowledge.
After about 3 weeks, my report arrived by e-mail.
How does Karmagenes lay the scientific foundation for their findings?
Before moving on to my results, let me explain the problems I have with the company’s scientific position briefly and as plainly as possible. Karmagenes claims in their science background PDF that DNA modifications known as Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNPs) have a strong link with hormones and transmitters. Their whole business is based on the idea that a certain genetic variation leads to changes in a protein, which induces hormone level changes, then neurotransmitter modifications, which leads to behavior change. A nice line of domino-effect. When I expressed some of my doubts to the company, Karmagenes CEO Kyriakos Kokkoris told me that they fully acknowledge the complexity of understanding human behavior and their polygenic approach links each trait with at least 2 genes and at least 4 SNPs considering various factors of the importance of each SNP affecting behaviour.
Although, such a complex behavior as risk-taking or openness cannot be translated from single DNA variations. In fact, a lot of DNA variations contribute to a predisposition for a certain trait and then even more environmental factors help create the actual phenotype. It depends on so many factors that nobody could list half of them.
My Karma and my genes – the overall results
The notion that a survey with psychological questions and analyzing certain SNPs can tell anything about personality, in my view, is wrong. Personality traits are much more complicated and millions of other factors play a role in determining them. You cannot reduce something so complex to such banalities. It’s just not right. When I asked a fellow geneticist, Daniel MacArthur about Karmagenes, his only response was an animated gif of a dumpster on fire. I hope you see, why.
With one exception, all my personality features were influenced by genetics on a medium level and thus the survey decided what kind of a person I’m supposed to be. Moreover, the descriptions and the suggestions after each trait were too vague to give me any specific things to do to change them.
Take the following example. The trait of being an “optimist”. The description, as well as the tip for improvement is too general, too basic and too much of a cliché. If you ask any of your friends, when you are sad about your life, they will probably tell you something very similar.
There is not one word about what genetic components, SNPs, were analyzed and how the results actually affected my traits. Just indefinite descriptions about how my genetic background might influence behavior. And I honestly do not think that I can get to know myself better through such endless possibilities.
I need to mention that since I told Kyriakos Kokkoris, who has a PhD in microbiology, about my negative review and opinion, he has been very fair to me and we had a healthy discussion about how we look at this field. What I share with you is simply my opinion and experience with the test. Everyone should make their own judgement about the test and the company is quite open to answer questions and concerns.
As an average patient, I did not find the test useful. As a geneticist, I still do not believe that the notion they base their whole business model is viable and scientific enough.
The FDA would never approve such a test.