23andme Thoughts

Sandy and I recently decided to get our DNA analyzed through 23andme. The service genotypes DNA from your saliva, which you send to the lab after collecting it in their “spit kit.” After a few weeks, you get access to a set of results containing health and ancestry information for yourself. The presentation is through a fairly slick web app, with what seems to be pretty good documentation and bibliography for the claims that are made, and an easy-to-navigate interface.

The information available is kind of a mix between useful statistical data (risk factors for certain diseases, whether or not you are a carrier for certain diseases, etc.), and what I think of as “science-flavored astrology” (seeing which celebrities share your maternal or paternal haplogroups, or seeing the percentage of neanderthal DNA you possess).

There are a range of health risks for which their data suggests I am statistically at an elevated risk — similarly, there is another set of risks for which I am at decreased risk. These range from type 2 diabetes, to certain types of cancers, to Alzheimer’s. Some of the probabilities allow you to select a particular ethnicity (presumably selecting for a specific experiment or set of experiments whose results back the calculation), which is somewhat problematic or tough to interpret for someone like me from a mixed background. (23andme itself lets you report multiple ethnicities, but source data for certain health risks may only have involved cohorts of a single ethnicity.) Interestingly, the elevated risks for Sandy and I are mostly disjoint, which gives me hope that our daughter will inherit our advantageous traits while skipping our vulnerabilities. 🙂

You can also browse a set of “traits”, which are a set of tests on non-disease characteristics. For example, I am apparently 0.13-0.29 times less likely than the average European to develop male pattern baldness — fingers crossed! I also apparently have a genotype that frequently results in not being able to taste certain bitter flavors, which perhaps explains some of my tastes in food and drink.

There’s also an ancestry aspect to the service, which does a bit of analysis to show where your distant ancestors (500+ years ago) came from, and also provides a “relative finder” and family tree builder. You need to specifically allow the “relative finder” to find close relatives (or to be found as a close relative), apparently to reduce the likelihood of unpleasant surprises. This is interesting but I have no particularly close matches currently registered on the service — the closest are estimated as 3rd through 5th cousins.

The cost of the service is fairly modest — it’s now $99. On the one hand, it’s not at the level where I could call it “cheap” — however, given the breadth of information that is obtained from the test, I think nearly everyone would find something interesting or perhaps helpful from getting tested. To look at it in a very simplistic way, if you undertake any sort of successful lifestyle change (prompted by your genotype analysis results), and you wind up living just a few hours longer than you would have otherwise, it’s “worth it.” I also find the idea that this sort of information is now more readily available to the average person really fascinating — I guess I’m more focused on the potentially positive aspects of it, rather than potential privacy and/or insurability problems.

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