23andMe and My Family: Why Won’t They Spit?

Several months ago, I had my genome sequenced by 23andMe as part of becoming a founding member of their online pregnancy community.  (Ok, Ok, I explain this every week, I know.  Have you figured it out yet?  It’s a disclaimer:  I work for them.  If you think that means I can’t write honestly about them…well, you’re wrong.  Just deal with it.)

ANYWAY – I spat – and videotaped it – because I was paid — but also because I was curious.  What would I learn about myself?  What might it tell me about my kids?   Was I really related to Harry Connick  Jr.? And it has been fascinating: I have an increased tendency toward addiction — so maybe my wimpy fear of trying drugs was really my genes protecting me.  Reassuring: I do not have the Breast Cancer gene, though my mother has had BC.  Entertaining:  I share 74% of my genetic sequence with a Nigerian man! Who knew?  And also enlightening:  I have an increased sensitivity to Warfarin, an anti-clotting drug my father has taken every day for the last 50 or so years. Plus, I am at genetically increased risk of developing Type 2 Diabetes, so I know to watch my weight, diet and exercise for more than my usual vanity reasons.

My family was right on it: what did I learn?  What did it say about them? When was I going to stop all this blogging and do something worthwhile?  (Well, you know, once the questions got started, they weren’t gonna let a chance to ask that one slip by.)

So I did what any good daughter/sister would do:  I signed them up, too. (The discount benefits of freelance employee status – yeah!) I could only pick three people.  My father said he wasn’t interested.  My sister wasn’t sure.  My kids were too young.  My husband’s philosophy is “what I don’t know can’t hurt me.”  Only my mother wanted in.

Until they all changed their minds.  First, my sister:  I’m nervous, but I think I should know things…in case they impact my kids.” Ok. Sister in.  Then, my father: “I’ll do it.  I’m curious about the technology, to see how it all works.  Sounds fascinating.”  Then my husband: “What?  I never said I didn’t want to do it!  I want to do it.”  Too late.  Mom, Dad and Sis were in.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the spittoon:  none of them spat.  On Passover at my parents, I saw their 23andMe spit kits sitting unused on the counter.  At my sister’s one Sunday afternoon, I saw her spit kit buried under a mound of mail on her desk. What happened to the fascination?  What happened to the interest?  What happened to their NERVE?

Sure it’s scary to find out about your innards.  You might learn something you’d rather not know.  But you also might find out something valuable to know – something that makes you change your lifestyle to avoid a heart attack, or Type 2 Diabetes.

I’ve dived right in – joining forums, comparing genes with total strangers, exploring my origins.  I didn’t think it was scary at all.  I thought it was exciting.

Now if I could just get my family to spit, I could learn even more….


  1. Peter Aldhous says

    You haven’t had your genome sequenced, I’m afraid. You’ve had a scan of just over 500,000 of the 3 billion or so letters in your genetic code. The “SNPs” that have been scanned are sites where people’s DNA is known to differ, but there is a vast amount of genetic variation that you haven’t been tested for.

    Your scan will contain some interesting information, but I wouldn’t get too excited about its ability to predict your health risks, at least for now, given that science still knows relatively little about how normal genetic variation contributes to the risk of common diseases. As more SNPs are linked to susceptibility to these diseases, the risks that are quoted from your scans may change.

    As an example of the current uncertainty, take my results for the skin disease psoriasis: according to 23andMe’s analysis of 3 SNPs, my lifetime risk of developing the disease is 9.3%, and my relative risk is 0.87 (where 1.00=average). According to deCodeMe, which analysed the same 3 SNPs plus 5 more, my lifetime risk is just 0.7% and my relative risk is 0.33. So what’s my actual risk? I don’t think anyone knows for sure.

    Also, the term “the breast cancer gene” might confuse your readers. 23andMe tests for 3 particular mutations in two genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2. But 23andMe’s website notes that only 5-10% of breast cancers occur in women with any known genetic predisposition, and the percentage caused by these particular mutations will be even smaller. So as you may know, testing negative for these mutations definitely doesn’t mean an “all clear” with regard to future breast cancer risk.


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