Illustration by Allison Filice

How Much Are Your Body Parts Worth?

We’re only talking legal sales here.

Nick Colas is a Wall Street analyst who looks for market indicators in the Google auto-fill results for “I want to sell …” and “I want to buy ...” A few years ago, he noticed a search term showing up more and more frequently: “I want to sell my eggs.”

“These were not poultry farmers,” Colas says. At the same time, he started noticing ads on the train between New York City and New Jersey, enticing women to sell their eggs. The country was in the midst of the Great Recession, and a lot of people were desperate to make money. Eggs weren't the only biological material suddenly trending in his Google data—queries from people wanting to sell their hair and even kidneys were also increasingly popular. (You can’t legally sell your kidneys, but black-market profiteers in some countries coerce poor people into doing it for just a few hundred bucks.)

Trade in bodily material usually booms during downturns in more traditional markets. But even during times of economic prosperity it maintains a brisk pace online. Monetizing one's own body yields an income of last resort that, thanks to the Internet, is now easier than ever, through what Colas calls the “biological version of the sharing economy.”

As genetic data and stem cells become more sought-after, new revenue streams are opening up all the time: DNA samples could now earn you $50 or more, and certain kinds of stem cells could net up to $800 per donation. But why only some kinds? Because this is a confused market. Companies and medical professionals assume that laws such as the 1984 National Organ Transplant Act, which banned payment for organ donors, apply to fetal tissue and the stem cells derived from it, but not to stem cells obtained from blood.

Even with some legal limits, the priceless temple of your body is also a reserve of salable material. As Colas says, “the next recession is always just around the corner.” So here's an updated inventory, based on a wide range of sources.