At my husband’s very enthusiastic encouragement, we both signed up for 23andMe, an at-home genetic testing service that gives you information about inherited traits, genetic predisposition to certain illnesses, ancestry info, and a bunch more. The company and the info it provides has been kinda controversial, and if you want to read all about that, do a Google search. I’m just going to tell you about my experience.
Long story short: we both spit into tubes and sent the spit to a lab. About a month later, the information from our spit was made available online for us to peruse.
Some of the info was fun, if not revelatory. Alex, for instance, found out that he “most likely has blue eyes and is taller than normal,” which, yeah, we know that already. We also found out that Alex can tolerate caffeine really well (I’ve seen him drink six espressos and have a nap afterwards, no joke) while I do not tolerate caffeine so well (if I drink a large iced coffee I will crawl out of my skin). These things were all pretty obvious but still kinda cool to have confirmed.
One of the controversial aspects to 23andme is the genetic risk factor portion – the idea that you may find out you have a high liklihood of getting Parkinson’s disease, for example. Certainly folks have received bad news like this through 23andme and, well, not taken it so well. However, the info is set up so that type of information is locked and you have to consciously go in to look at it. I definitely see both sides of the argument: some people don’t want to be unnecessarily freaked out about possibly developing Alzheimer’s when perhaps there’s not much they can do about it but worry, and they may not get it anyway. Others want to know what risk factors they have so they have so they can work hard to reduce their risk. Either way, I think if you pay the money and donate the spit, you know what you’re getting into and any bad news is received at your own risk. Both Alex and I had an almost perfect bill of health in this regard, with no heightened risk for any of the listed issues, which was a bit of a relief for me, but also held me firmly where I was when I started: thinking that I’m relatively invincible and will hopefully die quietly in my sleep in my 80′s, or on a rollercoaster, also in my 80′s.
Another neat trick you can do with the info is combine you and your partner’s results to see what your kid’s genes might look like. For example, although Alex has pretty much every gene possible that codes for red hair (obviously) I don’t have any, which means we have a very slim chance of producing a ginger baby—much to the dismay, I’m sure of family members who have prophesized this very thing for years now. On a more serious note, you can also see if you’re likely to pass any more dangerous things onto your offspring.
The other fun part was the ancestry. While it’s not necessarily the most telling (so I came from the Middle East tens of thousands of years ago; that’s cool, but doesn’t really tell me much about the blood currently flowing through my veins) it does give you a break down of where your DNA traveled. Turns out Alex and I are both largely European (as are most white-ish people) but while Alex is mostly UK-based, my peeps are also Italian, Balkan….Scandinavian and Finnish? I am also the teensiest percentage East Asian. I knew I was a mishmash, but wow!
One really cool thing: the test determines what percentage of your DNA, if any, is Neanderthal. It turns out that I have more Neanderthal DNA than 85% of the population, at about 2.9 %, while my husband, despite his prominent and manly brow ridge, is only in the 45% percentile. I am ridiculously proud of this.
23andme is potentially a cool, fun project that teaches you a bit about yourself and a bit about genetic testing. It’s also potentially a harbinger of bad news that many people would rather not experience. At the very least, it’s a reminder of how rich and complex our bodies and our histories are, and this cave woman is happy she took part.