Distressed Genes

A curious 23andMe customer provides the saliva that gets shipped to lab techs for testing.

I made lasagna last night. That’s not really my style, but I just found out I’m a quarter Italian.

I’ll admit it: I’m fascinated by the mysteries of my own self. I think most people, if they’re being honest, would say the same. That chronic hunger – call it self-discovery, call it navel-gazing – is big business, from astrology and Tarot to hypnosis and psychiatry. A palm reading might be quackery, but what about a genome reading?

A friend turned me on to the idea when he Facebooked a map of his ancestry, part of the $99 “Personal Genome Service” offered by 23andMe. (The company takes its name from the number of chromosome pairs in the typical human.) You order online, get a kit in the mail, spit in a vial, send it back.

In addition to ancestry, the service (until recently) included analyses of genetic traits, inherited conditions, drug responses and, gulp, health risks.

• • •

As a video on the 23andMe website explains, lab techs extract DNA from a customer’s saliva, make copies of it, heat it and attach it to a handy-dandy “Illumina HumanOmniExpress-24 format chip” that captures about a million computer-readable data points.

The chip detects variations in the 0.5 percent of the human genome accounting for all the differences between people. The “AG” genotype in my rs4988235 SNP means I’m probably lactose tolerant. Other genetic markers indicate whether one is likely to smell asparagus in her pee or develop a heavy nicotine habit.

It gets scarier: 23andMe also tests for SNPs indicating whether a customer is likely sensitive to certain prescription drugs, predisposed to particular cancers or even resistant to HIV. That’s why the feds view the Personal Genome Service, which briefly marketed “health reports on 254 diseases and conditions,” as a medical device requiring approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

In summer 2012, five years after it started selling DNA kits, 23andMe started applying for that approval. But last May it blew its deadlines, stopped talking to the FDA and ramped up advertising. So the feds got pissed.

Nov. 22 letter from the FDA warns 23andMe that the Personal Genome Service could be dangerous to consumers. For example, a false positive for mutations of the BRCA gene, which indicates high risk for breast and ovarian cancers, could prompt a woman to seek a mastectomy. A false negative could lead her to overlook a real risk.

Effective the date of that letter, 23andMe dropped its health-related reports for new customers – no more predictions for drug responses or disease predispositions – pending a truce with the feds. It still offers ancestry information and “raw genetic data,” and for $5, the website Promethease lets customers import that raw data and get much of the same health information.

Neither FDA nor 23andMe would comment on the standoff. But in a Dec. 6 email to customers, 23andMe co-founder and CEO Anne Wojcicki – wife, not coincidentally, of a co-founder of Google, which is backing 23andMe – states the company stands behind its data. “You are among the first people to ever get access to their genomes,” she writes. “You are genetic pioneers.”

That kind of talk is a little creepy. The company swears it won’t share genetic records without consent, but it’s open about its continued use of the aggregate information in its genome database.

The potential of that database is mind boggling. It could contribute to major scientific and medical breakthroughs. Or it could lead to the sort of dystopian future in Margaret Atwood’s chilling Oryx and Crake trilogy, in which gen-tech corporations have taken over the government and invaded human privacy at the most intimate, molecular level.

• • •

I ordered my Personal Genome Service just a few weeks before the Nov. 22 cutoff, so I got my health reports. They aren’t as bad as I’d feared: My highest risks are for gout, gallstones and restless leg syndrome, all conditions that run in my family. Other results are pretty spot-on, too, from my “slightly curlier” hair to my weakness for caffeine.

Still, I’ll take the reports with a grain of salt. 23andMe only analyzes a few hundred of my 10 million genetic variants, and even those are couched in uncertainty. I won’t make hasty medical decisions, though I might be on the lookout for certain symptoms. And the privacy element doesn’t really worry me, though Google banner ads for gout medication would be suspect.

But the ancestry info is by far the most fun, even if it is somewhat speculative. I like imagining the long-ago travels and romances that put in a pinch of Sardinian (1.2 percent) and a dash of North African (0.9 percent).

Oh, and also: I’m apparently 2.6 percent Neanderthal. Maybe tomorrow night I’ll do barbecued wooly mammoth.


Need that appliance fixed?  Lawn overgrown? Find all that and more in the Monterey County Weekly  Service Directory, click here.

Time for a haircut? Need a massage? Find all that and more in the Back Cover, click here.

Become a Member Today


It takes a huge effort for Monterey County Weekly to stay independent and deliver the quality news, arts & entertainment you’ve come to depend on. We’re inviting our readers to join our new membership program, a new way to support independent, local media.

Learn more.

Recommended for you

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.