What Price Love?

Swabbing Is The New Swiping

DNA matchmaking seduces with the prospect of a more satisfying sex life, higher fertility rate and a more enduring relationship. Would you spit into a vial for love?

Swabbing Is The New Swiping
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Call it the curse of evolution. The unprecedented paradox of choice delivered by the likes of Tinder, Coffee Meets Bagel (or whatever else tickles your fancy) has turned swiping into an epidemic even as dating apps are fast becoming infertile ground for those truly looking to settle down. So some singletons are looking elsewhere: DNA matchmaking.

The idea of DNA-based attraction has been around since the landmark study by Dr Claus Wedekind in 1995, dubbed the Sweaty T-shirt Experiment, in which male participants were given clean T-shirts to wear for two days after which they were returned to the scientists. The female participants were then asked to smell the tees and rank them in terms of intensity, pleasantness and sexiness.

Strikingly, the women tended to prefer the scents of the T-shirts worn by men whose major histocompatibility complex  (MHC) genes were different from their own — suggesting that people with differing DNA markers in MHC (more commonly used to determine compatibility for organ transplant) were more genetically compatible.

This notion also paved the way for our understanding of pheromones and their role in the mating game as we know it today.

These days, it has become harder to sniff a tee and score a soulmate, thanks to the olfactory buffet available to both sexes that can enhance, and inevitably mask, their original odours, thereby rendering pheromone attraction problematic.

Enter DNA matchmaking, which suggests that genetic compatibility increases the likelihood of an enduring and successful relationship, leads to a more satisfying sex life and higher fertility rates among biocompatible couples.

This premise of compatibility has been around for some time now, pioneered by global players such as Canadian-based DNA Romance and Swissbased GenePartner.

While the size of the DNA matchmaking market is not known, the Asia-Pacific genetic testing industry was valued at US$1,324 million ($1,795 million) in 2018 and is projected to reach US$2,481 million by 2024, according to a report by analysis firm Market Research Future.

Southeast Asia even has its first DNA matchmaking service, Genemate, which came about because one of the co-founders had trouble finding a girlfriend. Talk about #FirstWorldProblems — and their high-tech solutions.

“I was chatting with a friend who’s also close to 40 and we were asking ourselves why it’s so difficult to find a girlfriend,” recalls Allen Zhao, founder and chief operating officer of Genenova, the company behind Genemate.

Image: Jamie Street/Unsplash

It was that friend who prompted Zhao, a former scientist with Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) to channel his expertise in genomic technologies towards developing a way to pair up potential love interests based on their DNA compatibility.

Zhao revisited the Wedekind study plus a dozen or so research papers that presented similar conclusions before roping in serial entrepreneur Darren Wee and Roger Poon as co-founders to build a business that could potentially change the dating game in the region — and perhaps even help address Singapore’s declining birth rate.

A Question of Chemistry

The trio hand me a box that says “Genemate”, branded with the promise of “Using science to find your soulmate”. Inside sits a vial for collecting a saliva sample (no more than 2ml) that lab technicians will analyse based on their proprietary Geneformula that’s based on studies of MHC.

The Genemate process involves identifying 1,000 positions of the genome, which are then examined vis-a-vis the DNA of other potential partners to determine genetic compatibility. Overlapping positions are cancelled out, leaving only dissimilar points in colour, with results presented in a heart shape.

“So the more colourful the heart, the more genetically compatible the two individuals,” Wee explains.

The start-up is in the process of creating an online platform much like a dating site where the database of DNA profiles are stored, and users will be able to login to the system to discover their perfect DNA match.

Each DNA profile is also sorted into one of eight “tribes”, all named after the word “love” in various Asian languages such as “ai” in Chinese, “cinta” in Malay and “aejeong” in Korean.

It may sound counterintuitive but the objective when seeking a Genemate is to avoid your tribe, as the tribe represents how genetically analogous you are.

“That’s why siblings don’t usually fall in love,” offers Wee.

That’s also why it’s generally frowned upon to marry someone with the same last name, as the mating of related individuals leads to in-breeding, which increases the chances of recessive mutations in one’s offspring.

Being matched by DNA would, therefore, help eliminate this risk, while helping love seekers cut right to the chase.

“Many people use dating apps these days but they feel like they’re wasting their time swiping and swiping,” Poon notes. “By grouping them into different genetic tribes, they will know who not to ‘waste time’ on, and look for those in other tribes instead.”

Image: Alexander Sinn/Unsplash

Genemate membership will likely be free at the start, and matches will be ranked according to tribe and percentage of compatibility. Think of it as a conversation starter, much like asking a potential mate for their zodiac sign.

“When they see who they match with, they can message each other or send someone a heart and get the conversation going,” says Wee.

An Oversimplified Promise?

It’s all very scientific and simple in theory. But what about qualitative factors like preferences and personality? Can the collective wisdom inscribed in our genetic material decode our desires and prescribe us a partner who ticks all the boxes?

How does our DNA codify age, race and sexual orientation for classification? Skeptics, surely, and romantics, perhaps, will find reproach in such an oversimplified approach.

“It is gender independent,” explains Wee.

“There’s no bias or prejudice at the gene level,” Poon adds.

Good to know, although that means I might get paired with a 60-year-old man, I exclaim.

“Or a 20-year-old guy,” Wee quips.

On the question of race, Poon explains that while the Geneformula is calculated based on Asian genes, it will not necessarily only match with someone of the same race. Users of the upcoming platform can select such filters according to their preferences.

Launched in June last year, Genemate’s team is working to quickly populate its DNA depository in order to yield the best possible matches for its candidates.

To this end, Genemate is also partnering with dating agencies such as CompleteMe to shore up its database. More importantly, DNA matchmaking complements the more traditional speed dating process as well.

“DNA matchmaking is an interesting and novel idea. Imagine if you are sitting across from someone who has done the DNA test and you know that he/she has a higher compatibility match as compared to the rest, would you pay more attention to that person?” asks Michelle Goh, founder of CompleteMe.

Her agency co-organised Singapore’s first genetic matchmaking event with Genemate last November, but it is still too early to tell if DNA matchmaking will be able to harvest happier unions in Singapore and beyond. “DNA is only one of the many factors in matchmaking,” Goh acknowledges.

“Income-earning ability and age (due to potential family formation) are other criteria that the dating agency can take into consideration — and the DNA component can be a bonus add-on.”

But when love is whittled down to science and the practical, where’s the romance?

This story first appeared in the January/February issue of A Magazine.