I Think I Passed The Genes Test

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A high-school classmate and fellow CrossFit fanatic mentioned several months ago that he had signed up for a mail-order genetic testing kit and had just received the results. He’s a well-respected doctor in town, so it caught my attention that he was willing to fork out $199 for the test. This fellow is not likely to spend money on scientifically dubious endeavors. His test was conducted by 23andMe, one of three companies out there catering to consumers. It is the least expensive by far, and uses SNP genotype testing, which examines the spelling variations in DNA.

The test covers both ancestral background and a limited number of genetic health risks— age-related macular degeneration, Parkinson’s disease, celiac disease and late-onset Alzheimer’s — among others. Among the ancestry reports one receives are ancestry composition, Neanderthal ancestry, maternal and paternal haplogroup and DNA family. Haplogroups are families of lineages that descend from a common ancestor . So the maternal haplogroup follows the path of my female ancestors and the paternal haplogroup does the same for male ancestors.

I filed away that information and went on about my business. At one point I went to the 23andMe site to read about it, which somehow spurred a flurry of promotional emails landing in my inbox over the next few months. Eventually, the company offered a 30-percent discount, dropping the price by $60. What the heck. I ordered the spit kit. It arrived a few weeks later.

The instructions were simple. Register online, spit to a certain level in the tube, seal it and send it back in the postage-paid box. I agreed to allow my DNA to be used in research studies, doing my small part for science. I shipped it off and waited.

In the meantime, I did some research to see what I was going to get for $139. A molecular biology writer examined all three companies conducting consumer genetic tests. 23andMe is by far the least expensive, so understandably it tests the fewest. Her story points out that testing nearly 700,000 SNPs sounds impressive but it’s only 0.01 percent of the 6 billion DNA letters in the human genome.

“It’s the genetic equivalent of spot-checking a few letters in each chapter of War and Peace and trying to decipher the plot” she wrote. I had a tough time back in college deciphering the plot of that Russian opus with all the letters. Still, the writer gave 23andMe high marks for explaining results well, not over-selling the test, and ensuring the careful consumer understands the test’s limitations.

Last week an email arrived from 23andMe, announcing my test results were available. I spent a couple of hours reviewing the results with a mixture of trepidation and fascination.

Whew. On the health segment, there were no unpleasant surprises, though 23andMe reminds users that the test is no guarantee of immunity resulting from the genetic markers it examines. On the ancestral front, the test concludes I am 50.9 percent British and Irish and 21.1 percent French and German, with a scattering of other nationalities — Iberian, Scandinavian, and a smidgen of Italian. As a child, I was told that my father’s side of the family came from Scotland, and that our surname came from the Scottish Borders, an area south of Edinburgh. My parents even bought a molded plastic family crest from a mail-order company, which even as a teenager struck me as likely bogus. My mother’s family immigrated from the Quebec province of Canada in the 1920s, so the French portion of my DNA is not surprising.

One portion of the report deals with Neanderthal ancestry, an extinct population of ancient humans who interbred with modern humans before becoming extinct 40,000 years ago. Turns out I have more genetic variants of Neanderthal origin than 94 percent of 23andMe customers. This apparently has nothing to do with my physical appearance, other than I have less back hair than average males. So I can’t blame being short on my Neanderthal ancestors.

Finally, it turns out I have 1,015 DNA relatives who have taken the 23andMe test. Like all of us, I have many more DNA relatives than that across the globe; those are just the ones who paid for the test. The test concludes that of my DNA kinfolks, compared to the average 23andMe customer:

  • 67 percent are more likely to think that fresh cilantro tastes like soap. I love cilantro, so I’m in the other third.
  • 45 percent are less likely to be a vegetarian. I’m in that group, being a confirmed carnivore.
  • 23 percent and 27 percent more likely to own a cat and dog, respectively. Yup, that’s me.
  • And 13 percent less likely to be able to carry a tune. My dogs leave the room whenever I start playing guitar and singing Willie Nelson’s “Always on My Mind.”

For $199, unless you get the discount, you can find out such compelling information about yourself as well.


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