Scientists harnessing Facebook to advance global studies in genetics believe their methods can be replicated to support health research on a huge scale.

The Genes for Good project, spearhead by a team based at the University of Michigan, has engaged 80,000 plus people via Facebook, and collected 27,000 DNA spit-kits, as well as a range of survey data, gathered from a diverse group of individuals.

“It’s a very important step to allow participation remotely, because it opens the door to a lot of people who historically couldn’t participate in genetic research, even if they had wanted to,” explains Katharine Brieger, a first author and MD/PhD student at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. “And having a more diverse population represented in study samples is critical for moving public health and genetic research forward.”

After years of genetic studies being held back by the obvious limitations stemming from researchers having restricted access to smaller test groups located in specific geographical areas, and the corresponding difficulties of effectively following up with participants, social media makes it possible to collate key information at scale.

Analysing the data coming from Facebook in the Genes for Good project has generated results that mirror those from ‘well-cited papers’, the work featured in The American Journal of Human Genetics reveals.

“We were quite pleased with our ability to replicate the findings of other large studies,” added Brieger. “For example, in our sample, we were able to identify previously reported associations between specific genetic variants and traits such as BMI, as well as conditions such as type 1 and type 2 diabetes.”

With the right funding, the innovators behind Genes for Good, point to the potential of similar initiatives reaching millions of users.

“What we would really like to do next is to use the platform to see if this is an opportunity to engage with disease foundations for targeted studies at a very large scale,” said senior author Goncalo Abecasis, of the University of Michigan School of Public Health.