A couple months ago, a friend pointed me to the website 23andMe.com. Their mission statement is pretty straightforward. “23andMe’s mission is to be the world’s trusted source of personal genetic information.”
Here’s how it works.
After signing up online and coughing over my $100, 23andme sent me a small kit. Inside the kit is a little plastic tube. All you need to do is fill part of the tube with saliva, seal it up, and mail it back to them. It’s all postage paid, so it’s just a matter of dropping the box in the mail.
About 4 weeks later, you’ll get a piece of email saying your results are ready to be viewed. And then things get interesting.
It’s all about the data. 23andme is a genetics database. They take the DNA in the sample you sent, sequence and index it, creating a ‘genotype’ – a unique fingerprint of who I am. They then start comparing it with existing data in the science community. Some of this data is basic historical and geneological stuff (“Who am I related to?” “Where did I come from?” “What is my heritage?”). But where it starts getting interesting is when you dig into medical markers. “Am I predisposed to cancer?” “Will I develop alzheimers disease?” “What are my chances of getting Parkinsons?”)
23andme presents all this information, and then some. As more and more data is correlated, more reports come available.
So, I’ve given a DNA sample to a website. Nice goin Dave, your privacy is hosed.
Well, it depends on how you look at it.
I’ve consented to give my DNA sample to what is essentially a big scientific experiment. Gathering genetic data from as many people as possible makes the data more useful. Everything I read about 23andme to me makes them seem like the good guys.
They’re scientists, looking for scientific answers to scientific questions about health, geneology, and physical trends in human population. I feel more comfortable giving these guys my DNA than I do giving Facebook my employment history.
So what have I learned?
That’s the goal of this, isn’t it? Learn about me. So… here’s what I’ve found out…
- I have an increased risk of prostate cancer (Not surprising, my dad had it). Not horrific, (about 1.8x what the general population has, but it’s increased).
- I do not have a higher risk for Alzheimers, Parkinsons, or a host of other ailments
- I have an increased risk of male pattern baldness (Shocker)
- I am not resistant to Norovirus or AIDS – means I can get them both if I’m exposed
- I have a fairly high risk of Venous Thromboembolism. (This is good to know since I sit down a lot – the push to use a standup desk and keep active has been on the right track)
- Fun stuff
- Check the chart above – I am half northern european, half ashkenazi. Not a surprise, but there it is!
- I am distantly related to Luke the Evangelist, Marie Antoinette, Napoleon Bonaparte, Prince Philip, and Susan Sarandon
- I can’t flush alcohol easily from my system – means I get drunk and stay drunk very easily. (guess I’m a cheap date).
- I have something like a thousand cousins in the database. Some 2nd or 3rd cousins, one of which has already contacted me! (a student at UCLA in California. Hi cuz! – We still haven’t tracked the connection 🙂
The details go on and on and on. The cool thing? They keep getting updated. As genetic markers are linked to medical conditions and other data analysis methods come live, these reports go active, and I get an email.
So, is this for everyone? Probably not. The data that comes out of this is highly technical. I wish I had a stronger medical degree to understand the incredible volume of information that is presented. On the other hand, this is a non-subjective, non-biased report on who I am, what my body is doing and how it relates to what we know about genetics, and what my history is like. If, at any point, I don’t want 23andme to have my data anymore, I can download the raw data (it’s very easy), and purge the account. All my information is removed from their servers.
But I’m not going to do that. I like having this window into who and what I am. And I want to know as much as I can.