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Genetic Testing With 23andMe: Affordable Test, Fun Data

My ancestry composition from 23andMe. Screenshot from Ariane Coffin.

Have you ever wondered what your DNA could reveal about you? 23andMe is a private company that provides affordable DNA testing. For $99, you can find out what your body isn’t telling you.

I first learned about 23andMe while listening to a podcast episode of Lab Out Loud. As one of the hosts brought up, the results come as invaluable information for adopted individuals who do not possess the luxury of a family medical history. Personally, I wanted to try it for fun more than for information!

Shortly after I placed my order, I was sent a spit collection kit. Spitting in a tube is a simple as it sounds, and I returned my sample in the provided pre-stamped box back in the mail. Getting the results takes about 6-8 weeks. The wait was a little nerve-racking at first, but I eventually forgot about the whole thing until an email popped up in my inbox one day to announce my results were available online.

My eye color results on 23andMe. Screenshot by Ariane Coffin.

As silly as it seems, the first thing I was hoping the results would tell me is my eye color. I had two green eyes growing up, but one turned brown when I hit puberty. I never really understood why. It became tricky when applying for a driver’s license in California, should I check the box for green eyes or brown eyes? Most importantly, when I was pregnant with my first child, I wanted to know what eye colors we could expect! Were my eyes genetically green?

From the research I’ve done, a green-eyed parent (my mother) and a blue-eyed parent (my father) cannot have a brown-eyed child, so it stands to reason my eyes are genetically green.

Unfortunately, I did not get the specific answer I was hoping for. My eye color result indicates I have two “G” version of a specific single-nucleotide polymorphism associated with eye color in trusted genetic research. Provided my European background, that means I’m 99% likely to have blue or green eyes, whereas brown comes in at only 1%. So even without a definitive answer from the genetic testing about the actual color of my eyes, I can use this information to guess that my mismatched eyes, combined with my husband’s blue eyes, will most likely result in a blue-eyed child. Good to know, since I have another one on the way!

My 23andMe results also include dozens of other traits that range from the bizarre (like earwax type) to the surprising (bitter taste perception) to the significantly important (resistance to HIV/AIDS).

All results are graded on a star level, indicating whether a result is based on established research (multiple quality studies) or preliminary studies of various sample size. While I wouldn’t trust a 1-star result, it’s still fun to speculate. One such 1-star result classifies me “effectively learns to avoid errors.” Go figure!

Additionally, all your results include substantial information about how to interpret your data.

Other than traits, results also include health risks, drug response, and inherited conditions. Your health risk reports indicate your risk level for a few dozen diseases, compared to the average risk. Your drug response results indicate specific drugs you might be more or less sensitive to. Inherited conditions cover, for example, BRCA cancer mutations responsible for breast cancer predisposition.

Besides your genetic results, 23andMe also offers other interesting features. First, you can head to the “Research & Community” section to answer questions and surveys. Your input, in combination with your DNA, can be used in studies to make new discoveries in genetics.

There is also a “Friends & Family” section to see how your results stack up against that of friends or relatives (should you choose to share your genetic results with them and vice versa). Most surprisingly, 23andMe can also help you find new relatives you didn’t even know you had! Based on DNA similarities, the company scans the customer database to find other customers who are likely to be your first cousins, second cousins, etc. It goes up to sixth cousins then drops to “distant cousin” after that. While I chose to keep my genetic results private from other customers, they can still see me as a possible cousin match. I’ve already received a few 23andMe messages from possible fourth cousins, asking me to confirm my (and therefore their) French Canadian roots.

Founded in 2006, 23andMe has now genotyped over 250,000 people. Because the strong majority of customers have agreed to share their DNA for genetic research, the company has been able to collect 100 million phenotypic data points. And thanks to the new genetic studies performed both with and without 23andMe’s data, 23andMe is able to constantly provide new reports and findings about your DNA long after you’ve submitted it. We never stop learning.

Disclaimer: Review product was provided by 23andMe.

Ariane Coffin

Ariane is a programmer by day, a writer by night, and a mom somewhere in between. She is married to another programmer, and together they have a two daughters who don't stand a chance against their nerdy lineage.

2 Comments
  1. Ruth Suehle

    I think it’s also worth discussing the privacy questions and potential future use of having such data–once it’s known, it’s known. Wouldn’t insurance companies love to have all of this information on all their subscribers and potential subscribers? We have GINA right now, but things certainly change. I’m not a tinfoil hat sort, but I’d have to have a greater need than curiosity to do the testing.

  2. Marziah

    I’ve seen Gattica. Had mine tested anyway. Turns out my parents picked a pretty good combination, but if it had turned out that I were at higher risk for something, I’d want to know about it. I’d want to have screenings and take preventative measures. The risk to me is worth it.

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