Several months ago, the weekend I returned home to the States, I was enjoying wine and dinner at my parents house when they pulled out their DNA test results from 23andme. I admit to being surprised, but probably shouldn’t have been. My mother has long known about a lot of my ancestors on both hers and my dad’s sides.
23andme where am i from?
Growing up, I was always told I am German and Irish. I have been to both towns and cemeteries in Ireland where we know some of my great-great-great-great grandparents are buried. I have driven through towns in Germany where I know ancestors are from. My mom can trace some ancestors back to the Plymouth Plantation, although not the Mayflower. I know the names and birthplaces of all of my great-great grandparents and half of their parents. In some lineages, I claim 4th generation American. I know all of this; it’s documented.
I know I have Norwegian heritage, I know there’s at least one Dutchie, and I know there’s some English and some French. But mostly German and Irish.
If you either know me in real life or have been reading this blog for a while, you know I am super interested in history. This extends into genetics, weirdly, and the history of me. I’ve always wondered if I have any Scottish in me, or Neolithic, or Viking. Do I? I’ve always felt at home in Scotland, and I felt even more at home in Orkney. Does this mean that I’m subconsciously recognising my heritage? Is the Norwegian in me really seafaring raider? Likely not, since I do actually know that my great-great grandmother was born in Norway, not Orkney. (Also, I’m kind of bummed about this.)
And honestly, maybe the feeling I get in Orkney is just me feeling comfortable and confident on remote North Atlantic islands. You never know.
But… what will my story reveal?
My parents results were not overly surprising; it was mostly German and Irish. There were, however, some surprises. I don’t want to share their results here without their permission. I will note, however, that once my grandma’s results came back, my mom’s results changed because she had connected with her biological parent. That’s right. My mom’s results – which were already detailed – changed because 23andme was able to link her with my grandma. Mom did not say (in the registration process) it was her mother she bought the kit for.
The experiment got me thinking, where in the world am I from? Obviously, since I know both of my parents backgrounds it stands to reason that I already know – without doing my OWN DNA test kit – about 90% of my heritage.
But – what 50% did I get from my mother and what 50% did I get from my father?
23 and sarah
I’ll give you the breakdown of my own experience with 23andme.
It’s possible to purchase the kit at Target rather than on their website, which I did in late June. Before you send your saliva sample in, you must go online and register the barcode from the saliva kit in the box, and purchase either the genetics results or the genetics+health result. Once that’s done, you spit into the little tube, seal it up in the bio-hazard bag, and send it off. Shipping is included with your purchase, which makes this so easy.
I already knew, going in to this project, that I have family members who have had cancer. On both sides of my family. As of right now, none of those family members are my parents; what does the extended family health mean for my future health? I’m also lactose-intolerant. No one else in my family is (that I am aware of). I was well aware of the potential risks, including the potential that in the future, insurances companies could possibly use this information to deny me health coverage. I was also very, very curious. I bought the genetics+health package.
the legal stuff
The consent forms online make it very clear that you may learn something undesirable about yourself or your family when participating in this.
There are multiple consent forms, and if you purchase the kit for someone you must have legal consent to say “yes” for them. The consent forms have to do with the genetics research, the fact that you might find out something odd about your heritage or health, and others.
One thing I did do, which will not only help in the 23andme genetics research, is log in with my mom’s email and password. I chose not to set my own up mainly because I have too many passwords out there. But, I also figured, they’re going to know that my biological parents have done this already; there’s no harm in linking us.
In fact, my reasoning goes… because I have linked with both biological parents AND a biological grandparent, my results should be incredibly detailed. I learned the next day that my cousin has done it as well. While I definitely don’t think I’d have made a great scientist, this is sooooo interesting to me and I want to know all the details.
What will my cousin’s results show? How much do we have in common? What 50% of my grandma did her mom (my aunt) get and what of that was passed to her? Will we have anything at all in common? What if my other cousin does it? Will the three of us bear any resemblance to each other in our DNA profiles – will 23andme know we are related? The only thing I know for sure that two of us will have in common is our MtDNA – our maternal haplogroup. This is because our moms are sisters. Our third cousin – whose father is my blood uncle – might have the same maternal haplogroup IF her mother had the same one.
I might be losing you here, so I brought my biology-educated mom into this conversation. This is what she has to say:
“You might mention that 1) the biology of cell division can get pretty complicated, and a good biology textbook is an asset here (ed: I don’t have one, and I didn’t really pay attention in biology… although I do recognise the name Mendel); 2) mtDNA–mitochondrial DNA–passes from mother to child, so men inherit it from their mothers but do not pass it to their children; 3) Y-chromosome DNA is passed from father to son, and not inherited by daughters; and 4) one of a female’s X chromosomes came from her father and through him from his mother (the other X she carries is one of two that her mother carries).The process of recombination is very interesting, and the resulting chromosome ancestry can help you link different heritages together. If you find Italian and Eastern European genes on the same chromosome, they likely came together from the same grandparent or great-grandparent, and then you get to wonder just when and how those genes came into your life.I would note that other than my mother, me and [my uncle] (who all have the same mtDNA, obviously), all the mtDNA has been different. Dad’s (ed: my dad) is U2e2, your grandpa [name edited out] was H, [name edited out] is K. You and [name edited out] will be V, like me, but [name edited out] is likely something else. Her grandmother was Italian, I think.”
the collection process
You aren’t supposed to eat or drink within 30 minutes of spitting, but I was in the process of making dinner, having a glass of wine, and cheekily snacking while dinner cooked. I opted to register my kit and spit in the morning.
Ok. It’s morning. I woke up, didn’t brush my teeth (I know, gross) and grabbed the kit. It’s a 3 inch tube, but the spit part (there’s a line) is only about a half an inch. The box says most people take 2-5 minutes to collect their spit and seal the bag. Meaning – this is super easy.
I spit into the tube, filling it to the line, and then I closed the lid. A serum was attached to the top of the tube, so when I closed it, the bubble burst and filled the tube with a preserving serum. Then I unscrewed the lid, put the cap on, and shook it up. The tube went into the included bio-hazard bag with a padding, which I sealed, put into the box, and sealed again. Into the mail it goes.
the question process
I registered my kit the day I bought it. While browsing the site (post-login), I stumbled on the insights. I could answer a series of questions about my heritage, my health, my behaviors, and more. The answers I provided help in the genetic research portion but they also provide insight into my future DNA profile.
There were so many questions! I answered things like “have you ever suffered from X, Y, Z?” If the answer was yes, it broke it down: “have you ever suffered from X?” “Have you ever suffered from Y?” “Have you ever suffered from Z?”
The questions ranged from my sleeping habits to what I think my face looks like to whether my siblings have certain afflictions or not. There were questions about my skin and my tanning habits to my eye colour and what percentage of red I have in my hair. After each set of questions, there were insights. Some of these related to the questions I answered, other times they were demographics on the percentage of users who do this or that. It broke those demographics into ethnicity, sex, and age ranges. Those were interesting, although my answers relating to my job/residence/income are probably skewed a bit.
There are 23 series of questions to answers, although some series had repeat questions. You can choose to modify your answers based on previous questions/answers or keep the same answer.
Some questions are about family members; I’d suggest either asking your parents or skipping the questions. I talked to my mom through most of the early questions but didn’t ask about some stuff.
One thing that came up in an insight, not in a question, mentioned infertility. That had me curious. Will the health results show that I am unable to conceive? I brought that up to my mom, getting in reply a long biology explanation (she was a bio major) about not being “infertile” but maybe being told I’ll have “difficulty.” (Big note: I do NOT know anything about this; it was merely a concern.)
Health components that were significantly missing were about sexual health. Some STDs, as we all know, are (sort of) genetic. Hepatitis B, for one. It can be passed from a mother to her child if she exhibits symptoms at the birth. Same with herpes, syphilis, gonorrhea, and others. If your parent has a certain STD, you won’t get it, but you could be predisposed to it through a lower immune system or something like that (I am no scientist).
Obviously, though, I won’t be asking my parents about theirs, nor would I share my own. Maybe this lack of questions is a good thing after all!
Anyway, these things are done. Once I send my saliva in, both my genetics and my health will be known. I’ll know about my predisposition to certain genetic diseases, to Alzheimer’s, to Parkinson’s, etc. More about my allergies, my future health problems relating to my current diet, and others.
Now, we wait. 23andme will send emails along the way, letting me know where my samples are in the process.
The day I mailed the sample, I posted a photo to Instagram/Facebook. Several friends commented with the scary risks – namely, the hoarding of genetic information. I highly suggest that if this bothers you, just don’t do the DNA testing. Myself? I’m super curious… always have been and always will.
Are you curious about where in the world I’m from? Or what I might find out about myself? I am too. Stay tuned!