A Swiss company called GenePartner ("Love is no coincidence") has taken the search for a mate to a new level by developing a biological matching system using your human leukocyte antigen, or HLA, genes to find your perfect match.
The company works with several dating sites around the world--Sense2love and Eventful Dating to name two--and tests interested people by mail. It's quite easy; you get a couple of Q-tips, scrape the inside of your cheek and that of the other party or parties you'd like to have checked, and return it to the company. Later, you receive access to a closed account on the company's website, where you can read at your leisure about how well you supposedly fit together, genetically.
"This all sounds like some kind of animal attraction," says my colleague J, when he hears about GenePartner, which I was researching for my new book, My Beautiful Genome: Exposing Our Genetic Future, One Quirk at a Time.
He clearly finds the thought appealing. So appealing, in fact, that he thinks we should both get a test as soon as possible.
This does not come out of nowhere. For a couple of years, he's been energetically advocating that we produce a baby together. It's not that we should live together or have anything to do with each other in the traditional way -- we are both involved with other people -- but since his girlfriend can't have children, he thinks the arrangement makes sense. Particularly from a genetic point of view.
"We're both good-looking people, right?" he says, referring mainly to himself. When I shrug, he argues further that we complement each other well: "You're gifted in the rational direction, while I'm an excellent example of the artistic, aesthetic type." An ideal combination, in other words. When I'm not convinced, he moves on to the purely physiological advantages.
"My grandmother lived to be over a hundred, and she was fit as a fiddle right up to the end." And then the trump card: "My liver and pancreas are in top form!" Which undeniably says something about a robust physique, when you take J's consumption of wine into consideration. Now, he's trying a scientific argument as a last resort to persuade me: We can have an HLA test done, which can show whether we should propagate before it's too late for me.
I consent in principle but throw J out of my office.
At Sood-Oberleimsbach, an industrial district outside of Zürich, GenePartner has its headquarters in a boxlike office building. The company's total manpower proves to be two women: the director, Joelle Apter, and the head of research, Tamara Brown. It was Brown who kindly arranged to expedite the analysis of the romantic compatibility of the HLA genes in me, my boyfriend and my eager colleague J.
I wonder whether I would be rejected for my worry-prone COMT gene variants. Or the SERT variants that makes for a sensitive psyche, for that matter. And what would I find unpromising in a man? Brown claps her hands and pulls me out of my romantic gene reverie, suggesting we move to the computer. "Let's look at your data."
To start, she enters my code and then my boyfriend's into the system. On the screen, a minute scale appears and an arrow points at seventy percent. It is a bit of a mystery to me how you are supposed to interpret the number, but I scan the accompanying, helpful text:
"This genetic pattern reveals a high level of biological compatibility. Most couples show a corresponding result. This provides a good basis for a very strong and stable long-term relationship. Couples with this genetic pattern often report a high level of physical attraction and passion. However, please be aware that both social and biological compatibility are important for a lasting and satisfying relationship."
"It's a fine match," concludes Brown. "Most couples in our research project were between sixty percent and eighty percent. You could say you feel seventy percent attracted by him and, in addition, there is a scale for the type of interest that goes with the HLA results.
"If all your genes are different, you would be romantically very attracted, but if there were more common genes, you could still make an excellent match. In that case, our results indicate that you feel safe with each other, if you know what I mean. And since we saw fewer couples who were maximally different with respect to HLA, I think it may be due to the fact that the attraction is so strong starting out that you ignore social differences and conflicting interests that then later make the relationship fall apart."
It sounds like I should keep the one I've got.
"Yes, he's okay," she answers a little absently. She is already looking at my colleague J, whom I have told her is a bit of a playboy.
"Whoa, he's almost a perfect match," she says, fingering the screen where the arrow is hitting eighty percent.
"This genetic combination is typical for a very satisfying relationship, which also offers a high level of physical attraction. This means that both parties presumably find each other very attractive. This is important, because it means that the chances for intimacy will not diminish over time. You will presumably retain a passionate and highly fulfilling relationship. However, please be aware that both social and biological compatibility are important for a lasting and satisfying relationship.
"Everything looks good here. Aren't you attracted by him?"
Maybe, I am - somewhat - on some level, but the idea is just to have a child together and share custody.
"Yes, well, it would be a good child. Or - at least, there would be a good chance for a successful pregnancy. You have something to think about."
"How did the tests go?" asks J, when he calls me later in the day from home in Copenhagen.
He's sitting at a café with "a beautiful girl," as he puts it, but still has the energy to think of his possible progeny. "Did you get the word?"
There's no way around it, and I have to tell him that he looks to be the best of my alternatives.
"I knew it!"
My genes are not fate but cards I've been dealt, and some of those cards give me a certain amount of latitude in playing the game of life--whether it be romantically, health-wise, or seeking a deeper connection to my family.
Or, to turn another phrase, my genome is not a straightjacket but a soft sweater to fill out and shape, snuggle up to and stretch out. It is information I can work with and around, information that can grant me greater freedom to shape my life.
It is also information that can, in its way, ease my existential burden. It tells me that I am not totally free, nor am I completely responsible for who I am and what I have ultimately become.
So who am I?
I am what I do with this beautiful information that has flowed through millions of years through billions of organisms and has, now, finally been entrusted to me.