Geeks don't seem to have much luck in the romance department. Pop-culture stereotypes emphasize hopeless celibacy and unrequited longing. But in real life, these clichés don't really hold up, especially with the rise of online dating. Nearly 25 percent of people under the age of 34 use online dating apps, with niche communities like Dating for Muggles and Trek Passion attracting superfans looking to bond. Millions of people browse these sites, but the hottest new dating technology is something only the nerdiest romantics could love: DNA-based matchmaking.
You know how people describe that unmistakable emotional connection you have with someone as chemistry? Turns out there is actual chemistry at play. A growing body of evidence suggests that part of human attraction is based on just a few genes that control receptors in our immune system—and in these instances, opposites attract. People with different genes, and therefore different abilities to fight disease, are more likely to find each other attractive. Evolutionarily speaking, this makes a lot of sense, as it means producing offspring with a wider range of immune defenses than either parent.
Despite what we may think, modern romance still has much to do with our evolution as a species. We are, after all, just really smart primates. The quintessential DNA mate-choice study was affectionately dubbed the "Sweaty T-Shirt" experiment. It was both disgusting and groundbreaking. Researchers had the study's male participants wear the same T-shirt nonstop for two days, and then female participants smelled the shirts and rated how attracted they were to the body odor of each one. The results showed that the women favored the natural musk of men with genes that differed from their own. This study not only confirmed that we sense these genes through scent, but it also paved the way for a new online dating industry.
Geeky singles who get tired of swiping right on Tinder or refreshing their eHarmony account can now turn to several science-driven dating companies, including Gene Partner, Pheramor, and DNA Romance, whose CEO, Dr. Tim Sexton, actually came up with the idea for his app while out on an OkCupid first date with his now-wife and DNA Romance cofounder, Judith Bosire. More than 15 million people have taken direct- to-consumer genetic tests, but the user pool for these apps pales in comparison to more established dating services. Sexton wouldn't give me exact figures, but he said DNA Romance has between 8,000 and 12,000 users, primarily in the US. This begs the question: Why not just embed this technology in a platform people are already using?
"When we started back in 2014, DNA testing wasn't as popular as it is now," Sexton said. "It's definitely something we'd like to do and integrate into many larger dating sites. But to get to that point, we've needed to prove that our technology works and that we've got a product out there that people are interested in."
But five years later, it's still not entirely clear if DNA-based matchmaking works or if it works the same for all people. Unsurprisingly, most of these studies involved primarily white participants, and trends may express themselves differently in more diverse groups of people.
Even more unsurprising, research involving same-sex couples and people from the LGBTQ community is scarce. I found only one study that tested whether mate selection for gay and lesbian participants was driven by smell. It suggested that the trend largely held up for gay men, but the results for lesbian women were "somewhat complicated." We'll need a lot more research to say for sure.
Sexton concedes that genetic compatibility is just one element of many that lead to a loving relationship. But regardless of whether this tech works, should it even exist? How do we keep it from alienating LGBTQ folks, minorities, and people with genetic diseases? Should we even consider DNA when it comes to love? Let the science nerds figure it out, and maybe we'll copy their notes later.