Tech Review: 23andMe (Ancestry)
May 30th, 2014
In early 2014, I decided to put down one-hundred dollars for a 23andMe DNA testing kit. At first, I was hesitant since the option to view health information has been unavailable since late 2013 (2). I figured that, without the health information, the DNA kit would be impractical until I remembered that science isn’t always practical. What often drives scientific discovery isn’t just problem-solving, but also, a childlike curiosity about how things work. The kid in me decided to go for it and place an order for the ancestry kit. After all, a hundred dollars wasn’t that bad considering that I would be getting the opportunity to explore my own genome and be a part of this exciting advancement in science and technology.
So far, the 23andMe Ancestry kit is a purchase I don’t regret. In fact, I’m enjoying it more and more as time goes on. There is a plethora of cool features that enable me to play with my DNA and learn more about it. Also, I have been steadily growing my network of DNA relatives. Perhaps someday, I will build a software application using the 23andMe APIs and developer resources. Until then, I’ll keep exploring what this kit has to offer as a user.
Preparing the Sample
About a week after I ordered the two 23andMe Ancestry kits, I received them both in the mail. I ordered two of them because I wanted to explore both my paternal and maternal lineage. As a female, I don’t possess a Y-chromosome, and therefore, I can’t trace my father’s ancestry. Since I’m female, I have two X-chromosomes, one from each parent. Therefore, there is no way to determine which X-chromosome came from which parent. My brother, on the other hand, has exactly one X-chromosome which we know came from our mother. The mother always provides an X-chromosome while the father could provide either an X-chromosome or a Y-chromosome (4). In order to trace my paternal lineage, I would need to get a saliva sample from my brother or dad. In this case, I chose my brother since we already had a a lot in common as full siblings.
Interestingly, anyone’s maternal lineage can be traced by his or her mitochondrial DNA. When a baby forms inside the womb, it acquires mitochondria (special bacteria that convert food into energy) from its mother. Mitochondria are not “inherited” like genes are at fertilization. Instead, mitochondria are tiny “hitch hikers” that live inside the body’s cell’s in a symbiotic relationship, similar to the “good” bacteria living inside the intestines. The mitochondria are separate organisms living inside the human body with their own genetic blueprint (4). Just as Y-chromosomes are only passed down from male to male, mitochondrial DNA is only passed down from females.
After my brother and I collected our saliva samples in the test tubes, I mailed them to the lab for processing. This was all quite easy since the instructions were straightforward and the kit contained everything we needed. After mailing the kits to the lab for parsing, I waited several weeks in anticipation. In the meantime I setup my online 23andMy profile and learned about how the process worked. In order to get accurate sequencing, the DNA from the saliva samples was “amplified” so that there were much larger quantities of it for greater accuracy (1).
Below is a summary of my DNA test results.The overall consensus seems to be that I’m approximately 60% European and 40% East Asian/Native American. This makes sense considering I know that my mother’s side is mostly Filipino and Spanish and my father’s side is largely Norwegian, German, and French Canadian.
|British and Irish||Unknown||0.8%||13.4%|
|French and German||Unknown||Unknown||4.0%|
|Nonspecific Northern European||8.9%||33.3%||17.8%|
|Nonspecific Southern European||0.1%||1.1%||1.4%|
|Nonspecific East Asian||4.2%||0.2%||4.6%|
Interestingly, my brother’s results showed that we have some trivial differences in our genetic heritage. For instance, he appears to have more Chinese ancestry than I do and I appear to have more Scandinavian ancestry than he does. This makes sense since we are not identical twins even though we come from the same mother and father. 23andMe’s comparison feature allowed me to see that my brother and I share 53.7% of the same DNA. Also, we have 48 gene segments in common.
23andMe’s ancestry overview includes a map of that shows my maternal line (the migration of the F1a haplogroup). Clearly, my East Asian descent comes from my maternal line.
Because I’m female, my individual 23andMe profile has no information about my paternal line since I lack a Y-chromosome. Fortunately, I have a family account with my brother and can view my paternal lineage through his profile (the migration of the R1a1a haplogroup). The results show that my paternal line is mostly European.
I would recommend the 23andMe service to just about anyone. It’s an invaluable resource for those that want to discover their family tree and learn more about the exciting field of genetics. 23andMe’s social networking features are simple and make it easy to find DNA relatives around the world. There are also a variety of tools for visualizing this data and making it personal. For instance, you can build a family tree diagram and create music based on your unique genome. Software developers can utilize 23andMe’s APIs to create their own apps.
As a science geek, I found it endlessly fascinating to be able to download the complete raw data for my entire genome! It’s pretty amazing to say that, on my flash drive, there is a 16-megabyte file containing the source code for building my body. It’s truly a real-life miracle to know that, quite literally, the word became flesh.
Of course, people can argue about the ramifications of being able to share such personal data over the Internet. In a way, a genome is at least as valuable as a social security number. Health insurance companies could use this knowledge to exploit our genetic risk factors for diseases and charge us accordingly. Also, criminals could use this data to impersonate us with more precision than they could with a mere SSN. Lastly, many people have concerns about their privacy being invaded in general via the Internet. Not everyone wants to be an open book.
Whatever the potential risks and costs are in making genetic data more accessible, I personally think it’s a worthwhile endeavor. Hopefully not too much longer, the FDA will lift the ban on people having access to their own DNA-based health information (2). That way, we can have a society of individuals that are maximally informed and in control of their own health and well-being.
- 23andMe.”23andMe DNA Processing Lab Video.” YouTube. 24 February 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0gC8RQ7PemM&list=UUNTn02DED1jvkx5DbwFYdYA
- Gutierrez, Alberto. “Inspections, Compliance, Enforcement, and Criminal Investigations.” Food and Drug Administration. 22 November 2013. http://www.fda.gov/iceci/enforcementactions/warningletters/2013/ucm376296.htm
- Gilbert, Scott F. “Chromosomal Sex Determination in Mammals.” U.S. National Library of Medicine. 2000. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK9967/
- “Mitochondrial DNA.” Genetics Home Reference. U.S. National Laboratory of Medicine. 26 May 2014. http://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/mitochondrial-dna link