Just the facts, please.
Who am I?
We probably all ask that on occasion. Family stories, assumptions people have made and some frustrating things I assume are genetic have had me asking it more often lately.
Shortly after the start of the year, a friend of mine shared some results on Facebook from a site called 23andme.com, which has a goal to sequence the human genome through lots of people choosing to submit theirs. The benefit to you is you can:
- See what diseases for which you’re a potential carrier
- See your ancestry
- Meet genetic relatives you may not know you have
- Learn more about yourself as they continue to learn more about all of us
My friend was surprised to discover some unexpected ancestry, so I checked it out. After reading this cool article and seeing it cost $99—down from $999—I signed up! I wanted to know if it was true that I have French ancestry, however little, and if I carry the genes for lung cancer. When I was a kid, Mom ominously told me I could smoke if I wanted to, but to know that all the men in my father’s family die from lung cancer when they do so. She also told me my eyes would get stuck if I crossed them, and we know how that turned out.
What did I find? Well, I’m not entirely sure I’m French, although I have a lot of “nonspecific European” DNA. I’m not genetically Japanese, so there’s something to be said for environment influencing who we are. I’m more of a neanderthal than I thought, and…
Are you sitting down? I have something I have to tell you.
What?! No, really.
More on that later…
The consent form that I had to sign made me hesitate, and as someone who understands the security implications and sells two-factor authentication, I’m here to tell you it’s a big concern that my genetic information is protected by only a username and password.
Despite that, I decided to share my results for research purposes.
It took about 2.5 months from the moment I ordered to when my results came in.
- Sunday, January 13 – order kit
- Tuesday, January 15 – kit is shipped
- Friday, January 18 – kit arrives
- Saturday, January 19 – I process the kit, more on that below
- Monday, January 21 – I mail the kit back
- Saturday, February 2 – kit arrives in LA, about two weeks later
- Wednesday, February 6 – kit processing, with an estimate of 6-8 weeks
- Tuesday, March 26 – my initial results, more on those below
- Wednesday, March 27 – the rest of them
From start to finish: 10.5 weeks.
So I was excited about it, okay?
Processing the Kit
The kit shows up in a small, nicely designed box. You open it up to discover a lot of red-on-white lettering on how to go about using it correctly to get a sample. (I would love to see all the mistakes they receive at the lab, because you know people still manage to get it wrong.) It has a smaller plastic container nestled inside, which in turn contains the sample tube and a plastic bag to put it in, which then goes in the box for return.
The 23andme box.
Inside the box—I guess I should register.
Registering the Kit
This is where things began to concern me. First you enter in your barcode, you read the terms of service, and then the consent form comes up…
Okay, type in the barcode from the tube and an annoying CAPTCHA…
Need my name, okay, relative finder? Ancestry? Interesting.
There are an awful lot of words here, some of them are kind of scary.
You can read the consent document in full here, but here are some of the more concerning parts:
- “If we are required to do so by law, 23andMe may release the individual-level information.”
- “Your genetic data, survey responses, and/or personally identifying information may be stolen in the event of a security breach. In the event of such a breach, if your data are associated with your identity they may be made public or released to insurance companies, which could have a negative effect on your ability to obtain insurance coverage. Although 23andMe cannot provide a 100% guarantee that your data will be safe, 23andMe has strong policies and procedures in place to minimize the possibility of a breach.” [Uh-huh. I saw a movie once, where it was paramount to avoid a breach. Guess what happened? DOOMED.]
I think this means they might go look at my saliva more than just one time.
They need my sex and birth date to process the sample? Can’t they figure out my sex at least?
Setting up the account using email as an index…
I’d already set up an account on their site, so it matched my accounts.
Taking a Sample
After all that reading, it was time to make some spit! Aside from being concerned about my future ability to obtain insurance, generating enough spit was probably the most difficult part of the process.
It took more effort than you might expect.
Here’s the biohazard bag to put the tube into.
Sealed for freshness—and to keep it dry.
Ready for shipping!
When I was notified that my sample was being processed, it said it would take 6-8 weeks, so I figured I’d hear back sometime between March 20 and April 3. I was so anxious to find out, I checked in once a week to see, and then everyday after March 20th. Of course, the day I finally got over it and decided to just wait to hear from them was the day I was notified that my results were in!
There they are, in all their color-coded country-of-origin glory.
They came in two parts, and the first was pretty much everything but genetic ancestry information, including:
- health risks
- drug sensitivities
- inherited conditions
- genetic traits
- haplogroups for my mother and father
- neanderthal ancestry
Most of the information they have about you is provided immediately, but they hold some things back, e.g. Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and ask you to agree to see your results before showing you.
So what did I learn?
99th percentile, of course. Always an overachiever. But I could never rock long hair.
Physically, I’m more like the guy on the left in the image above. That said, all the men in my family are able to speak to each other by grunting, so maybe there’s something to it. And on occasion, a few people have seen a side to me that probably makes them wonder what kind of animal hybrid I am. Joking aside, it’s currently theorized that neanderthal language was highly musical, pre-dating the separation of music and language into different modes of cognition (Mithen, The Singing Neanderthals, 2006)
- I never thought about it, but I have slightly increased odds for: type 2 diabetes, venous thromboembolism (like all non type-O blood types), and esophageal cancer.
- Higher odds of developing melanoma (not surprising!) based on one set of genes, but a protective genotype and therefore lower (cool!) in another which also results in a large number of moles as a kid that eventually disappear (nice to know).
- Really surprised by three times the odds of developing a particular type of glaucoma—I’m glad I’ve been getting tested for it.
- Lower risks for prostate cancer, macular degeneration (you can stop worrying now, Mom), pancreatic cancer, testicular cancer, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s…
- Typical risks for assorted other things, just like most of you!
In the drug response department, apparently I’m more sensitive to caffeine than most people are: something we figured out empirically is now confirmed genetically! Probably wasn’t such a great idea to subsist on Mountain Dew throughout high school…
I don’t have any forty or so inherited conditions they can test for, although I’m a carrier for hemochromatosis (high iron levels).
They also said I probably have red hair, blue eyes, don’t flush red when I drink, I don’t think brussels sprouts taste foul, am resistant to norovirus (hello, cruising vacation!) and am a likely sprinter, among myriad other things.
A sampling of the things you might learn about yourself.
The next day, my ancestry information came in! 100% me!
No way. But my skin is so white, it’s pink. Sometimes, I’m lucky and I freckle. I’ve spent too much time identifying as a soulless ginger that you can’t just come along and tell me I might have a little soul in me.
I found out that I’m :
- 0.1% Sub-Saharan African—meaning 1 out of a thousand—which doesn’t sound like much. Who knows how long that bit of DNA has been hanging out on the chromosome, but it’s essentially the equivalent of having a completely Sub-Saharan African ancestor who was born in the 1750s. Based on the chart, I think this is on my Dad’s side of the family.
- 1.6% Scandinavian, meaning the equivalent of a completely Scandinavian person born sometime in the 1830s managed to create a branch in the family tree, a great-great-great-great grandparent. I can thank my Mom for my innate sympathy for the Swedish Chef on the Muppet Show. BORK BORK BORK.
- 31.6% British and Irish: no surprise there.
- The rest of it, “standard European”, although poking around a bit elsewhere on the site found people with French and Polish backgrounds. The French isn’t a surprise, but the Polish? Who knew?
Regarding being “black”: I don’t mean to be glib and do a disservice to the history of an oppressed racial minority. However, under the ridiculous “one drop” Jim Crow laws, I would have been considered “black”, which may seem just as ludicrous as those laws actually were. They never would have known, of course, but there it is. And we all agree that those laws were bad, right? Just like we’re going to look back one day and agree that anti-gay laws are also bad, right?
I wonder how those genes manifest themselves, if at all. I have lots of ideas, and perhaps at some point they’ll be able to tell me exactly what I can credit to them. In the meantime, it should give everyone pause when it comes to judging and stereotyping people: you never know what’s on the inside. I think it’s pretty cool to find out, though.
Another way of looking at things.
They also give you a view of the data based on genetics you share with other people who self-identify as being from or of a particular nationality or country. Information about “old world” countries is a bit more revealing than “new world” countries. For example, I share genetics with people who are from the UK, Ireland and France, all things I expected. The Polish ancestry was a surprise, but are via genetics I share with someone who has two parents who are both from Poland.
Trinidad and Tobago? I don’t think I have ancestors from there, but it’s more likely that someone from there and I have a common ancestor from elsewhere.
My expectation is that the results will continue to be refined as more people submit their DNA for testing and the site acquires more data.
I’ve discovered I have at least some second cousins on the site, and a number of people are coming out of the woodwork who want to share genetic information. I haven’t taken that step just yet, although I still would recommend that you sign up if you can afford the $100!
Maybe we’ll find out we’re related.