Genomac -- it's all in your genes

Or at least, there’s more there than you thought

In the arena of genetics, perhaps it comes as no surprise that the story of Genomac is intertwined with the tale of a monkey. When the first low-land gorilla was born in captivity in the Prague zoo in December of 2004, no one at the zoo could tell whether the baby gorilla Moja was female or male. A small genetic research institute named Genomac was asked to help. Genomac applied a Y chromosome test kit which was used to identify Moja as a female (by excluding that she had a Y chromosome). At the time, no one knew that this simple test kit would be vital to Genomac’s future work bringing lifestyle and fashion to the science of genetics.

In existence since 2001, Genomac started as a research institute for molecular genetics and oncology. Founded by genetic scientists Marek Minárik, Ph.D. and his sister Lucie Benešová, Ph.D., the company initially researched tumor mutation in cancer patients through grant-funded projects and provided paternity testing. After their success with the sex determination of Moja, they branched out to offer ancestry tests using the same test kit. Today, the firm is a certified forensic expert and is well-known in the Czech Republic as well as abroad for its research. It has developed a series of recreational genetic tests –for ancestry, body and health and personal characteristics, including a test specifically for children. It is also the only Czech firm that produces DNA jewelry and DNA family portraits.

My curiosity peaked when I heard about the genetic test for children, so I set up a meeting with Lucie to learn more about Genomac’s offerings for families. Upon entering Genomac’s building, a spacious, modern research center near the Prague airport, I noticed that the bathrooms were designated X/X or X/Y. Lucie herself seemed too young and animated to be an expert in the field of genetics, but once she began talking I realized my lessons in freshman Chemistry might not be enough to keep up.

As soon as we began talking, Lucie told me that she believes there are two types of people in the world – those who look forward and those who look to the past. She described herself as one of the forward-looking people, although she gives her brother credit for nearly all of Genomac’s innovations. Once Lucie and I began talking, it became clear that I couldn’t learn about the company’s future until I delved a little into its past.

“Bringing DNA into focus as a tool for recreational life sciences wasn’t easy ten years ago,” Lucie told me. Crossing over from being a strictly research institute to providing services for the general public wasn't either. As Director of Testing and Services, Lucie had to learn a new business skill set in addition to her background in molecular biology. At the time, the Czech market wasn't accustomed to associating the science of genetics with something fashionable or trendy.

But that didn’t stop Genomac. Their first genetic ancestry test Genograf, conducted in 2006, was Marek’s creation based on years of experience studying and working in genetics in the U.S. Genograf uses 12 markers from an individual’s DNA on the paternal Y chromosome called a hapolotype to trace a family’s lineage from several thousand years ago to present. These 12 markers are passed directly from father to son, so anyone with the same hapolotype is a relative. It can be used to trace Jewish heritage. The Genograf test is the most popular among Czech men, perhaps because more Czech men are interested in knowing their roots or where their family “crest” comes from.

The results of the Genograf test are presented to the clients with a certificate and a map showing them their ancestral migratory path, usually across Europe. There is an explanation of characteristics specific to the hapolotype and its frequency in the present population. A more detailed version of the test traces your ancestry within 100 years and even matches your hapolotype of those of famous personalities. A maternal version of the test using mitochrondrial DNA traces the maternity line back through the seven daughters of Eve, giving information on ancestral clan as well as genetically inherited diseases.

Once they began conducting the Genograf tests, Lucie realized that the Czech Republic lives up to its reputation as being the “heart of Europe,” genetically as well as geographically. Czechs share genes with the Slavic populations closest to the border where they live, with the most similarities among hapolotypes occurring in the Slovakian and Hungarian populations.

To date, the company has completed 7,000 ancestry tests. As they accumulated hapolotypes, Genomac developed the Czech National Genographic Database (CNGD). Genomac also has access to the World Data Base to match clients internationally. Based on the company’s small size, they have made a big name for themselves in the business of genetic ancestry, and they collaborate with a German research institute on a genetic magazine. Although genetic ancestry tests are popular in the U.S., no one delivers the results with a map and a certificate in quite the way Genomac does. Lucie showed me a few sample Genograf certificates and maps. They were like a personal geography and anthropology lesson rolled into one; ideal for someone interested in family heritage.

After the success of Genograf, the company once again turned to innovation. Marek came up with the idea for a series of Genoskop lifestyle tests, including a Genoskop Junior test for children. The children’s version of the adult test is based on five isolated “endowed” traits which include the absolute music pitch, the ability of physical fitness performance improvement (i.e. climbing gene), speed vs. endurance, inclination to dependency and circadian natural rhythm (owl vs. lark). Since genes are set at birth, the test can be done on very small children.

In fact, Lucie told me that the most useful age for testing children is between 2-3 years, when a child is beginning to develop certain skill sets, strengths and weaknesses, and parents need help deciding which direction to focus their child’s energy. Since, like all of Genomac’s DNA-based tests, the sample collection involves swabbing the mouth with a stick at home and mailing the sample kit back to Genomac, there really isn’t an age that’s too young to conduct the test.

Although the tests are the most useful for parents of young children who don’t know whether they should give their child a guitar or a baseball bat; they can also be helpful for parents of older youth who don’t know why their child isn’t succeeding in a certain area. For each gene, there are two chromosomes (one from the mother, the second from the father), which means that a child has the possibility of receiving both, one or none. If a child receives zero climbing genes, then it is not genetically likely he’ll be successful in physically demanding performance sports such as biking or climbing. On the other hand, if he receives two climbing and one sprint gene, he could be good at sports like tennis or rowing while two climbing and one slow gene is an ideal combination for Tour de France cyclists.

The physical test for absolute ear for music is a very difficult test to administer manually, which makes the DNA test helpful for parents who can’t decide whether it makes sense to encourage their budding pianist to keep taking lessons when she says she wants to quit. I mentioned that my son Oliver falls into this category. We think he has an ear for music, but he resists practicing so much that sometimes we wonder if it’s worth the hassle of making him. The “high-risk” gene or tendency to dependency is also a useful indicator for parents. With the knowledge that their child has one or two of the addiction genes, parents can engage their child in activities that help reduce the chance of a negative addiction.

From a satisfaction survey they sent out to parents who’d done Genoskop Junior for their child, Genomac learned that the DNA results usually match a parent’s expectations. When she tested her own daughters, she told me that the results were the most helpful for her as a mother. While her daughters are aware of their DNA for these endowed traits, they don’t make excuses for themselves. However, Lucie says that she finds herself better able to manage her own expectations now that she knows which of her daughters has the genes to run fast, climb high or hear the perfect pitch.

Of course, personal characteristics aren’t only a genetic matter. Lucie admits that their genetic tests don’t offer a way to isolate a gene for hand-eye coordination or dexterity. Still for some parents, it can be a helpful indicator, especially in the early years.

For adults, there is a full Genoskop Komplet test and another new Linie version, which offers a detailed metabolic genetic portrait, useful for weight-loss and health. The Linie version partners with the dietician Petr Havlíček, Ing. and is the most popular of the Genoskop tests. Linie findings are a presented in a 30-page document with specific facts and individually tailored recommendations.

As my visit to Genomac draws to a close, I ask Lucie about the one area of Genomac’s innovations that we haven’t yet discussed – DNA jewelry and DNA family portraits. Lucie admits that, in this case, the idea for DNA jewelry was her own. While she was home with her daughters on maternity leave, she used her experience with the forensics paternity tests to develop Genoklenot. Crafted from Swarovski crystals and pure silver, the DNA for the jewelry is taken from an isolated string of 16 DNA “waste-factors” unique to every individual. The customer can choose from a variety of color options, jewelry designs and even a variety of ways of putting their isolated DNA on the jewelry. Sisters can have their DNA put together on a bracelet for their mother, or a mother can put her DNA together with her children's.

For me, the most visually impressive of Genomac’s offerings was Genoportrait, the DNA family portrait. Mistaking the image hanging on Lucie’s office wall for modern art, I didn’t realize that the portrait was Lucie’s daughters’ DNA until Lucie pointed it out at the end of our visit. On the glass surface, red and yellow lines of different heights and thicknesses signified the individual genetic markers for each daughter while purple lines showed where their markers intersected. The portrait was modern art and science blended intricately together – a perfect family secret.

Although Lucie is a highly trained scientist running a successful business in genetics, she’s also surprisingly down-to-earth. When I asked to take her picture with some samples of Genoklenot jewelry, she agreed. “Let me take off my bracelet first, though,” she told me, slipping a bracelet with brightly colored red beads off her wrist. “My daughter made it for me, and, you know, she checks me every day to make sure I’m wearing it.”

She sent me home with a test kit for Genoskop Junior to get samples from my son, the one who plays the guitar well, but doesn’t want to practice. “It’ll be interesting for you to know,” she tells me.

Although Lucie told me that she’s a forward-looking person, after our conversation, it seems that, like the rest of her company, she has the ability to take the past and blend it with the future in a way that’s accessible to the general public.

From our time together, I learned that while all the information about my personal character might not be stored in my DNA, there’s certainly more there than I originally thought.

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