I’ve always been interested in learning more about my family history, since I really only know as far back as my great-grandparents.
I had heard of 23andMe from an ex-boyfriend. It’s a company that (until recently pending FDA authorization) provides a sea of useful information for people who want to learn about their genes. It’s not a complete mapping of your genome, but it provides information about your ancestry background and which genes you have that will generate specific health outcomes.
23andMe provides health reports on some 254 diseases and conditions. However, you should know that genes only determine about 30% of the outcome, while the other 70% is determined from your environment, nutrition choices and exercise. So, if you have a gene that is usually found in people with lung cancer, that doesn’t necessarily mean you will get lung cancer. If you smoke a bajillion cigarettes a day and you have that gene, your chances of getting lung cancer are much higher than someone without the gene, usually. At least that is my understanding as someone who skipped science classes in high school to smoke pot in the parking lot.
I ordered the $99 test and it arrived about a week later. It came with a tube for my saliva sample, and some info on how to register on the site. I had to spit into this plastic test tube for about 20 minutes to fill it up to the line. While I was spitting I thought, “What if I gave someone a blowjob last night, would that screw things up?” I think that’s a valid question, right scientists?
I put my DNA back in the box, and mailed it off to the lab. For all I know, they could’ve cloned me and filmed a sequel to "Multiplicity" called "Melissaplicity," where all my clones hook up with Michael Keatons. Can someone call Hollywood with that idea? I'll wait.
Six weeks later, I received an email that my results were ready! Oh, boy! I logged into 23andme.com and obsessively read my results for an hour.
The trait predictions were eerily spot-on. The test predicted my eye color was likely blue, my hair slightly curlier, that I was likely intolerant of lactose, that I had a high birth weight (I was 9.9 pounds, sorry Mom!) and that my height was likely taller than average.
There were a lot of random categories that were interesting, like reading ability, average caffeine consumption, response to exercise, and memory.
A very strange one was called avoidance of errors:
Another unusual one was odds of early menopause:
Inherited conditions were another category. The only gene that I had present was for Hemochromatosis. It has something to do with high levels of iron in the body and dying before the age of 30. I just made that last part up.
It also tells you your potential responses to certain types of drugs.
The thing I was most concerned about was the health risks. I don’t have any serious illness in my family, so I wasn’t expecting anything crazy. Breast cancer was the highest elevated risk, yikes.
Before I could read the Breast Cancer category to see if I had the mutations that caused caner, I had to agree that the information I was about to read could potentially be sensitive. Thanks for giving me a slight panic attack, 23andMe. I had to decide if I really wanted to know, because the results could be very emotional. I thought for a second, clicked on the link, and my life flashed before my eyes. I didn’t have either of the mutations.
The ancestry part was really cool too. I’ve thought my entire life that I was more German than anything else, but I was wrong!
The creepiest part of the website is seeing your distant relatives. You can contact them and talk about stuff. I didn’t have any super-close relatives on the site, but I had hundreds of distant cousins.
One girl sent me a message that said, “Hey, I guess we are genetic cousins!” So I wrote back, “Cool!” That was the end of that exchange.
Unfortunately, the FDA has put a temporary hold on getting your health information back from 23andMe, because they say that private genome services require more review to be sold to the public. Which makes sense, as most diseases are caused by so many factors aside from just genes.
I’m not going to rely solely on 23andMe’s results to tell me how to live my life. I know there are uncontrollable factors affecting my health that have nothing to do with my gene report. I was just curious and I like science.
It’s still unclear how people are supposed use their genetic information to benefit their health. I’m still going to eat healthy and exercise, no matter what my genes tell me. But knowledge that you have a gene that could cause Parkinson’s isn’t going to save your life. In fact, it would probably cause anxiety and fear over a disease that may or may not develop. The ultimate problem with 23andMe is just that: unnecessary fear of having a disease that may or may not develop.
Still, I’m glad I read my results and do not regret sending my spit to a lab. Would you or have you had your genes tested? Would you want to know if you were at risk of a serious disease?
I'm on Twitter: @MelissaStetten.