Monday, December 20, 2010

Genetic Self-Gifting: Give yourself DNA self-knowledge

Holiday self-gifting is a term I don't recall hearing last century, so I'm thinking that the idea of giving yourself something for the holidays is a relatively new concept (please add a comment if you think I'm wrong about that).

Also new, relative to the tens of thousands of years that humans have been seeking self-knowledge, is DNA and our genetic makeup.  In this post I'm going to make the case for giving yourself a genetic test, a gift basket of chromosomic revelation (not sure if that's a real word, but hopefully you get the idea).

This gift is available now, specially priced, for a limited time only, at $99 (plus a few extra fees). Of course, I realize that genetic testing is controversial. Some people have strong feelings about genetic testing and not all of them favorable. So let me make some disclaimers right off the bat.

  1. I don't own any stock in, or have any relationship with www.23andme.com which is the site that is offering the genetic test that I talk about in this post.

  2. I don't get any referral fees or other payments if you act on this suggestion.

  3. I don't think you should order a genetic test over the Internet unless you have read at least one book about the human genome, genetic ancestry, or genetic medical conditions, or been through genetic counseling.


The fact is, learning about your genetic makeup can be life-changing, and it can be traumatic. This is not something you do just for kicks. You do it for knowledge, about yourself and, by genetic implication, your family. For example, as attentive readers will know, my wife suffers from a genetic condition that has made her life miserable. It's called hereditary hemochromatosis. But if she had known about this when she was 18, or 21, or 30, there is a good chance her health today would be a lot better than it is. (Technically speaking she couldn't have known about it before 1996, because that's when the genetic connection was established but knowing in 1998 versus 2008 would have made a big difference.)

Human KaryotypeThat's just one of the things that a comprehensive genetic test can do, alert you to genetic conditions that can be treated, enabling you to get treated sooner rather than later, which is almost always the better way to go.

Genetic testing can also tell you where you came from, as in way back before family trees were written down on paper. From previous genetic testing, purchased from Oxford Ancestors, I know it is quite likely my maternal roots go back Ursula, who was probably born about 45,000 years ago in the mountains of Greece.

On the paternal side my roots go back "to 25,000 years ago in the Ukraine." In that particular scheme of things I am Clan Wodan. Men with the same genetic code today are found predominantly in northern and western Europe," although the same coding is also found extensively in Armenia and Georgia where 40% of the inhabitants are members of the Wodan genetic clan.

Has this knowledge made a difference to my life? I think it has, but I couldn't tell you why, not yet. I'm still processing that information. And I'm also waiting to see what ancestral data 23 and Me turns up. For example, there is a story in my family that goes like this: My paternal grandmother once said her own grandmother was a gypsy, as in "smoking a clay pipe on the steps of a painted wooden caravan" person of Romani descent, which I think is awesome if it proves to be genetically plausible.

To put this in context, all the genetic data I have about myself right now suggests a totally European, and predominantly Northern European origin. In the vernacular you might say: Stephen is a pretty much the definition of "white guy" as proven by any photo of him in swimming trunks (these are mercifully rare). However, given the way my views on life have evolved, I think a little diversity in the mix would be very cool. (Not to mention the fact that genetic proof of a Romani connection would alter my family's perception of grandma, whose recollection of her Romani origins is suspected of being a romantic fantasy.)

So here's the deal on getting yourself some genetic self-knowledge: It's $99 plus a 12 month subscription to the 23 and Me Personal Genome Service, which is $5 per month. The normal price for this is close to $500 (I know because I seriously considered buying it about 3 months ago but decided I had higher financial priorities). Here's how 23 and Me works:

  1. You pay $99 online and get your saliva collection kit in the mail about a week later.

  2. You collect your saliva and send it back for the DNA therein to be analyzed.

  3. You get online access to the results in about 7 weeks, make that about 8 or 9 weeks from your order, according to turn-around time on your end and theirs.


So it's not about immediate gratification, but the amount of data you eventually get is impressive. This includes a bunch of ancestral data plus 179 health-related results, including carrier status and disease risk (examples being Cystic Fibrosis, Gaucher Disease, Hemochromatosis, Sickle Cell Anemia & Malaria Resistance, Tay-Sachs Disease, see the list here).

The Personal Genome Service, which will start billing to your credit card at $5 per month only after you get your initial results, provides alerts when new discoveries are made about your DNA--like new markers--plus tools to view raw data and alerts when relatives are discovered (this is optional--you won't be contacted by anyone unless you give explicit permission).

Now, fair warning: I based the above 2 paragraphs on the claims made by 23 and Me on their website. I cannot guarantee satisfaction or that the company will perform as promised. That includes the very important promise to keep your results confidential.

For the record, I should state that I am a very open person. I tend to tell people a lot about myself ("too much" I hear someone say). To me, the security and confidentiality aspect of DNA testing is not too worrying. Could an insurance company get access to my DNA test results and deny me insurance? Frankly, it would not surprise me if they did, but then again I have a low opinion of the ethical standards enforced by insurance companies (which is not the same as saying everyone who works for an insurance company has low morals). Anyway, I'm going to order this test and live with the risk. Why? Because I want to know more about who I am, and there are worse risks out there than other people finding out the truth about me.

Let me be clear. I am of the opinion that the more people know about their DNA, personally and in general, the better. This is consistent with a broad belief I have in the power of transparency. Not everyone feels the same way, but I'd like to change that, through gentle persuasion. So I'm going to report back on my experience with 23 and Me and my DNA discoveries. I'm not promising to reveal everything, but I will share the interesting stuff and let you know what I think of the service.

So, if you don't gift yourself a DNA test for the 2010 holidays, maybe you will be ready by next year, after you read about my adventures in genome-land.

1 comment:

  1. [...] of self-discovery in 2010 that should reveal some interesting facts in 2011. As I described in my December 20th post last year, I have submitted a DNA sample to 23andMe, the company that is pioneering direct-to-consumer [...]

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