7.06.2010

23andMe: Turn your spit into pretty infographics



Back in April, Autumn and I paid $198 (regular $1,000!) to spit in a couple of tubes and mail them to scientists. I was initially leery of dropping that kind of money on a prequel to Gattaca as filtered through a web 2.0 lens, but 23andMe seemed to check out at a basic level. Benign overlord Google is a major investor, and co-founders of each company have married each other. I figured either it had a good shot of being reliable or I was helping them discover and suppress whatever gene it is that makes one care about online privacy.
Suspicions not alleviated by the fact the box
is approximately the same size as a PC game.
A few days later we got a couple of fairly nice looking kits in the mail, although I did think they looked like an elaborate viral marketing campaign or perhaps some new ARG.

The welcome letter was concise and non-threateningly colored. It informed us we had 12 months to send in our spit, which seemed rather patient of them, even considering the huge amounts of money the regular customer gives them.

Autumn and I each got our own kits, and both the boxes and the instructions repeatedly admonished us to register them before even opening the spit tubes. We went through the registration process and skimmed over the epic poem of a legal agreement (favorite part: "Don't get mad at us if you find out you were adopted, or that you're the milkman's son" (paraphrased)).

It was then time to slobber for science. Autumn and I laughed at the hyper-detailed (and multilingual) instructions for drooling into a cylinder*, before we got down to getting gross.

We mailed the kits, waited for processing, and eventually got our results. The data is interesting and useful, but I have to stress that the information is just two steps up from "for entertainment purposes only." While the science is sound, I-and most other consumers-are not doctors or geneticists, and while having a .7% higher risk for X disease does give you something to look out for, it's still just risk assessment. They have no idea what other environmental risk factors may be effecting you, nor do they have access to your medical history. Some of the reports about health issues with more potential for mind-numbing terror don't divulge the information until you agree that, no, a website is not a good replacement for a doctor.
I mocked Autumn for being a big wimpy baby.
She responded by hitting me until I cried.

That aside, what information they do give (each rated with a level of confidence) is exciting. A lot of it is just a confirmation of what would be obvious from a photograph, but is extraordinary when deducted from some saliva (eye color, freckles, etc.). Other facts are equally scientifically exciting, if ultimately useless (earwax type, ability to taste that bitter propylthiouracil chemical).

It was nice knowing that I will survive the zombie plague, even if Autumn will quickly succumb (That's what the norovirus is, right?), and being able to lord over members of your household with a layman's grasp of eugenics is nice.

Less icky for most and more exciting for amateur genealogists is the relative finder feature. Within a few hours of getting my results, a nice gentleman from County Kildare in Ireland sent me a message. We might just be third/fourth cousins, and share 0.43% and two segments of our DNA, which I assume is a lot for two people who just discovered the other existed. I may have a person to share a pint with if we ever take our trip to Ireland.

Guys have a leg up with this feature, since women don't get that fantastic Y chromosome to map their paternal line. I have twice as much information telling me I'm a white colonialist. And while the risk level was nil, it was nice confirming that Autumn and I are not in any way related.

If you have a scientific curiosity, and the spare cash, I definitely suggest taking advantage of the next sale, whenever it rolls around. It's worth it just for the "hey, keep an eye out for colon cancer" risk assessment, and the chance at finding out Warren Buffett is your first cousin is potentially worth millions.

My maternal line public page.

My paternal line public page.

*My arrogance backfired; a couple weeks later I got a sad email telling me:
Our laboratory has received your saliva sample, but unfortunately they were not able to analyze it as there was not enough DNA in the saliva sample. There's no need to worry; this problem is uncommon but it does happen occasionally. All you need to do is spit again, using a new kit that we are shipping to you at no charge. Please read the sample collection instructions included with the kit carefully to achieve a better sample.
I had to wait another month to get my results.

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