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Google Is Scouring Ancestry.com to Find Out What's in Your Genes

Google Inc.’s Calico, a biotechnology firm created by the search-engine giant to study aging and related diseases, will delve into the genetic database amassed by a unit of Ancestry.com LLC to look for hereditary influences on longevity.

AncestryDNA, a division of the Provo, Utah-based genealogy company, has gathered more than 1 million DNA samples from the $99 testing kits it sells to consumers to help map their family history. Beside the genetic information, Calico will have access to tens of millions of public family trees created by consumers, which include birth and death dates, relationships, and geographical locations.

“Now that we’ve got 1 million samples, there’s enough statistical power in the dataset to elucidate drug targets,” said Ken Chahine, Ancestry’s executive vice president and head of DNA and health. “If you aggregate a set of individuals who had long-lived families and we have their genetic information as well, that’s a way to start making hypotheses about the heritability of longevity.”

Health companies are mining the growing amounts of digital information on people’s genetic codes to hunt for clues about how diseases develop -- and how they might be cured or prevented. Databases are growing as costs fall as low as $1,000 to sequence a whole genome, while selective genotyping is even cheaper.

Closely held Ancestry.com reported $619.5 million in revenue last year. Chahine wasn’t able to say how much the DNA kit sales contributed to revenue. The companies declined to disclose the financial terms of the deal.

Difficult Task

“Our common experience suggests that there may be hereditary factors underlying longevity, but finding the genes responsible using standard techniques has proven elusive,” said David Botstein, Calico’s chief scientific officer, in a statement. “This is an extraordinary opportunity to address a fundamental unanswered question in longevity research.”

In announcing Calico’s creation in 2013, Google Chief Executive Officer Larry Page said in a blog post that the company hoped to improve “millions of lives” with “longer-term, moonshot thinking around health care and biotechnology.” Calico, short for California Life Sciences LLC, is led by Arthur Levinson, chairman of Apple Inc. and former chairman and CEO of Roche Holding AG’s Genentech unit.

Budding Partnerships

Over the last year, Calico has formed alliances with industry and academic partners. AbbVie Inc. has contributed $750 million to building a research and development facility, and Calico has also signed collaboration deals with QB3, a University of California-backed biotech startup accelerator, and with the Broad Institute, a Cambridge, Massachusetts, center run by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University.

Calico isn’t the only company looking in consumers’ genes for clues on human health. Another Silicon Valley startup, 23andMe Inc., which sells $99 DNA spit kits to consumers, has also set out to find drug targets and is working with drugmakers that are eager to access its large database of genetic and health information.

Ancestry.com started a new division, Ancestry Health, on July 16, which will allow consumers to create a family health history similar to the family trees made on Ancestry.com. The AncestryDNA division is exploring the creation of a health-focused testing kit to rival 23andMe’s, according to Chahine.

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