About 15 years ago, when DNA tests were mostly known as the bane of daddy deadbeats denying paternity on daytime talk shows, my wife and I participated in one of the first large-scale DNA studies, through National Geographic. Our motivation was partly curiosity, partly the knowledge that we’d be helping expand the understanding of genetics, and partly that we’d get a cool DVD on the subject. The kits were $99 each, and compared to what commercial DNA testing packages produce today, the mailed results were fairly primitive.
Over time, technology advanced, prices dropped, and a few months ago, for $59 each, we decided to take another shot at DNA analysis with Ancestry.com. After spitting into a tube—by far the most unpleasant part of the experience—we mailed our samples for processing. A few weeks later, I received my results (electronically this time), and began searching through Ancestry’s “DNA Matches” list.
To create the list, the familial relationship between you and other individuals is predicted based on the amount of shared DNA, measured in centimorgans (cM). Ancestry correctly identified (with “extremely high confidence”) a relative as my first cousin, based on 1,027 cM shared. Second cousins were also identified, with 250-500 shared cM, while third and fourth cousins, most of whose names were completely unfamiliar to me, had less than 250 shared cM. Although Ancestry has the largest available DNA database, it only matches DNA results with people in its own system; the same policy applies for its best-known rival, 23andMe. But for a wider pool of potential DNA matches, or just a second opinion, you can download and transfer your raw DNA data (not as difficult, or messy, as it sounds) to another DNA testing company—sometimes without charge, or after a small additional fee.
My ethnicity estimates—those percentages and pie charts you see in the TV commercials—were mostly as expected, with a few surprises. I knew that my maternal grandfather came from Sweden, and his family name can be traced back a couple of hundred years there, yet “Swedish” only accounted for 4% of my DNA. According to Ancestry, I had more Irish and Scottish DNA (5% total), even though there are no known ancestors from Ireland or Scotland on the family tree.
The accuracy of these consumer-marketed DNA tests has been questioned, and when I uploaded my data to MyHeritage.com and searched for matches, the country with the largest number of “distant relatives,” after the U.S.A., was Sweden. But Ancestry did trace my lineage, correctly, back to specific towns in Poland and Sicily, and even if the company’s country-of-origin classifications are a little off at times, they’re a lot more fun than competitor Family Tree DNA’s broad regional categories—“West and Central Europe” and “Southeast Europe,” for example.
With fun in mind, we paid for Ancestry’s “Traits” add-on feature, in which appearance and sensory traits are predicted, based on DNA analysis. These include finger length, earlobe type, eye color, hair color, skin color, cleft chin versus smooth chin, unibrow tendency, and type of ear wax. (Despite its novelty and scientific validity, “What kind of ear wax do you have?” is not a recommended icebreaker at parties, even when geneticists are present.) Ancestry’s predictions were right on nearly every count, with the unfortunate exception of “male hair loss”; my genes indicated a low risk, but I’ve been taller than my hair since my late twenties.
As for sensory traits, I’ve known for a while now that I’m among the 40% of Europe-descended Americans—we happy few, we band of brothers—able to detect a strange smell in my urine after eating asparagus. The DNA predicted as much, along with my tolerance for cilantro (roughly 10% of the population suffers from “cilantro aversion”) and my seeming immunity to “sun sneezing,” which I still have trouble believing is a real thing, despite its affecting up to 35% of humanity.
None of these traits is likely to dramatically affect a person’s life, but 23andMe offers a “Health + Ancestry” package that focuses on stuff that could, like whether you’re a carrier for certain diseases, or if you have a genetic variant that increases a specific risk to your health. I’ve no doubt that people’s lives have been saved because of such knowledge; I’m also certain that people’s lives have been negatively impacted, perhaps even ruined, as the result of living in fear of an increased chance of Alzheimer’s or breast cancer.
DNA kits are not just a product of the 21st century, in many ways they perfectly encapsulate it. There are issues of privacy: Should you allow DNA matches to contact you? Who gets to use your data, and how? If you allow your data to be used for research, are you generously contributing to science, or being taken advantage of by the companies that commodify it? There’s also the issue of information overload: How much information is too much, and which information can be trusted?
Luckily, consumers control most of these decisions, many of them via the various opt-in/opt-out checkpoints at registration. But they’re tricky questions, ones our ancestors never had to consider.
For me, the process was worth it, if only for the humbling realization of just how much and how far my own ancestors traveled in search of a better life—I moved 47 miles, from New York to New Jersey, and it felt like kind of a big deal at the time. As a consumer experience, a DNA kit can deliver the cheap enjoyment of a $10 fortune teller revealing “hidden” facts about yourself, or the grim reality of a doctor’s medical diagnosis—a wide range, to be sure. In the genetic lottery, winning or losing is subjective, and you can’t pick your numbers—or more accurately, given the alphabetical symbols for DNA’s four chemical bases, your letters. But you can decide whether to check your ticket, or maintain a bit of mystery and keep your spit to yourself.
Peter Dabbene is a Hamilton-based writer. His website is peterdabbene.com. His books can be purchased at amazon.com.