Spit and Find Out Who You Are

I sent my spit to 23&Me, a California-based “personal” genetics testing company started by two women. As I waited for the results, I felt like a kid waiting for the first day of school – part dread, part excitement. When I tell others that I have done this, there are two reactions – keen interest or “why would you want to know that?”! 23&Me provides you with health information such as disease risk and carrier status of other diseases; traits; matrilineal ancestry information; and what proportion of you is Neanderthal, seriously. It never occurred to me to be fearful of who I am.  For me, information is power.

What is mtDNA?

Genetics intrigues me although I understand it only in the simplest of terms – you can’t choose your procreating parents. I am stuck with whatever they and their parents and their parents passed along to me. I also know that the genome is traced through the mother’s DNA – the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), the smallest of our genes, the very basis of who we are, biologically speaking. Humans have only their mother’s mtDNA unless something wacky happens at conception.

Too Much Information?

Aside from simple curiosity, much of my interest in having my genome typed was to have information to make better health and lifestyle decisions and to pass along information to my two sons. The basic $99 DNA test provides me with some useful information about diseases that I am at an elevated, average, or lower risk for developing. Some diseases that I am at lower or average risk for, I have had. Understanding how that happens, I am reminded of what Steve Banks always said about risk – it’s not a risk pool divided up among people. If you are 2% at risk for something and you get it, you don’t just get 2% of it; you and one other person get 100% of it, and the other lucky 98 get 0%.

It is interesting that 2 major diseases that they test for – Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s – are in a “lock box” that I had to affirmatively unlock prior to getting my results. In other words, if I don’t want to know about my risk for those diseases, I could avoid them and still see the other results. For every disease they test for, they provide an explanation of the disease and provide links to more information about the disease, including support groups. Of course, they also include a disclaimer that risk alone is not an assurance one way or the other about your health future.

Two other important areas of health information 23&Me provides are diseases that I carry, but don’t have. This is useful information for my sons to have. They also test for my reaction to common medications such as blood clotting medication often given during surgery or how well I would respond HepC and malaria treatment. This is pretty practical information.

Fun Facts and Irrelevant Information

Appealing to the social scientist in me, 23&Me provides me access to hundreds of social/ psychological surveys (all online) that are optional for anyone who has registered spit. I have learned all sorts of interesting, but not terribly relevant, information about myself. For example, I am right-handed but left-footed; I always wondered why my son Jack writes right, kicks left. 23&Me accurately identifed my eye color and iris pattern, my freckles, that I prefer order, and that I have the fast twitch muscles of sprinter and not muscles for endurance. It also accurately found that I don’t overeat and that I have a high pain tolerance.

If you spit for 23&Me, you receive information on your risk for 130 diseases, your carrier status of 49 diseases, 13 traits, and 9 drug responses. In addition, you find out the geographic ancestry of your biological mother, and you can link this with your ancestry.com (or similar) account. Lastly, 23&Me measures what percent of you is Neanderthal – normal is 2.7%. One footnote – if you live in New York State, you must have the spit kit shipped to someone who doesn’t live in the “Nanny State.” For some reason, New York doesn’t think have the right to know who I am.

For more information, visit the 23&Me website.

Whole health