What's it like getting your DNA results back from 23andMe

by phil on Wednesday Feb 23, 2011 1:30 AM

I have in my inbox an email from 23andMe with the subject line, "Your Genetic Profile is Ready." I was planning on going to bed, but now I can't, knowing this email is sitting here. I've been waiting for this for 6-8 weeks, which is how long they said it would take to process my DNA sample and conduct a genetic profile. Supposedly this will tell me if I have any genetic defects that may lead me to die early. I know, it sounds morbid. And to think, I asked this for a Christmas present. But I'm not that worried. My friend got his profile a week ago, and it only told him funny, but forgettable stuff, along the lines that he might have an allergy to rosemary. But still, I'm a little anxious, and I want to capture my state of mind before and after opening this email.

Rewind back to mid-December, and this friend mentioned off-hand that he was going to get his DNA profiled for $100. My first thought was, "Cool, I want that!" and the timing was perfect since my parents had asked me what I wanted for Christmas. When I visited them for the holidays, I mentioned I wanted my DNA examined, and then they looked at me funny. "Are you sure you want that. Not clothes or anything?" my mom asked. And for the first time I actually considered the downsides to it. If I had some hidden terminal genetic defect, would I want to know? I told my parents I'd sleep on it.

Now you'd think I'd draw from philosophy to make my decision, but instead I drew from short-cut responses. My response was, "Screw it, why not." I almost viewed it like you would a fire walk. In a fire walk, you're informed that it won't harm you, but you're scared anyway. The only way through is to tell yourself, "Screw it, I'm doing it anyway." Likewise, I want to believe that knowledge and information, while possibly scary, are ultimately harmless. I read a study showing that depressed people often have more realistic perceptions of reality than happy people, and so perhaps that implies it's better to stay in the dark. But my response is that the pursuit of reality makes me happy. I want to be happy in spite of reality.

And so as I'm typing this blog post in one window, in the next window is the email with my results. I could just delete it right now and forget about it. But no, I stand by my initial sentiment. I want to know. So here goes. Opening the email... now.

"I should have recorded a reaction video," is the first thing that comes to mind. There is the biggest WTF expression on my face right now. The first thing that hits me is the report on elevated disease risks. I see five items on the page, but the names are all blurry because I'm afraid to read them and there is a distracting link above. It says, "You have one locked report waiting for you, do you want to unlock it?" You damned right I do. Then it says, "Unlocking report.... the report is about Parkinson's Disease. Do you want to see your results?" What do you think?? But then I click again, and alas, there is nothing unusual about my risk profile for it.

After that little heart attack, I go back and process the names of the five diseases that I have an elevated risk for. And you know what, it's not bad. First of all, my risks are only, in the worst case, 1.90x the average risk. And second of all, the five diseases paint a picture of what I imagine old age to be like anyway, with random problems flaring up. These things won't affect me until thirty years from now, so who knows what advances to medicine will happen in that time frame. Plus, the website provides information on how to prevent those diseases and/or mitigate the diseases through early diagnosis.

And now I'm starting to feel good. I'm actually having fun with the site. I click under "Carrier Status," and there's nothing interesting, just the phrase, "Variant Absent" repeated over and over again, which is good. I then look under "Drug Response," and it says there's an increased sensitivity to Warfarin, which is a blood thinning drug. Cool, good to know. I click on "Traits," and it has some random assessments. For example, it says that I'm a "Likely Sprinter," which jives with the fact I did cross-country in High School. However, I don't really run anymore, so it's kind of a useless analysis. It's still a fun read, though, like getting a palm or tarot reading.

There's a link for "Maternal Line" and "Paternal Line." I click on "Maternal Line," and it shows a map of my Maternal Haplogroup. Apparently this report thinks my mom has a lot of Native American in her bloodline. My mom was born in Philippines, and there is some light coloring there, but all of North America is colored the most. There is, though, some coloring in China and Malaysia. My mom claims Chinese heritage, and Filipinos have a lot of Polynesian traits, so perhaps this is correct. I then visit the "Paternal Line" page and that is spot on, with lots of color in India and Europe. My dad was born in a Western part of India which has historically been a cross-roads of cultures.

So now I'm just clicking around aimlessly, lost in an infoviz jungle, and ultimately glad I bought this. In hindsight, this is a convenient judgment because I didn't discover something that would kill me in ten years. But the odds of anybody discovering a surprise like this is too low to be worried about. The $100 was well-spent if it means an early diagnosis for any of these diseases. Plus, since I have a 1-year subscription to their service, they'll update it with new disease risks as they're discovered.

And just like that, I'm through the fire walk. The information about what would kill me ultimately did not kill me.


Kristen said on February 23, 2011 10:22 AM:

That's the coolest thing ever and I know what I'm asking for when my birthday rolls around. :)

Thanks for sharing!

Tate said on February 23, 2011 11:56 AM:

How'd you get it for $100? It looks like it's $200 on their website... Have a coupon to share? :-)

Phil Dhingra said on February 23, 2011 12:29 PM:

Ah yes, it was their Christmas special.

Tate said on February 23, 2011 12:39 PM:

Ah, thanks.

Guess I'll wait till next Christmas then. :-)

Mateo said on February 23, 2011 2:04 PM:

As long as you're sharing...here's another 23andMe story:


Matthew said on February 23, 2011 2:19 PM:

If you are from the USA, I would like to know if you thought about the health insurance issues. If you had received a report showing a genetic predisposition towards something nasty, I would imagine you'd be obliged to share that in an insurance request. And I also imagine that you thus wouldn't be able to get insurance. Or is that question already answered by the company?

Reddazrael said on February 23, 2011 4:02 PM:

I second Kristen's comment. This is definitely something I'd like to have done.

ssnyder said on February 23, 2011 4:48 PM:

Getting the results from 23andMe is a really fun process. It can be a little unnerving trying to process the disease risk information at first. I wrote about my experience in my blog posts linked here: http://samsnyder.com/2010/12/16/new-23andme-results/

Nick said on February 23, 2011 11:04 PM:

I was really expecting some terrible result at the end of that story. Something along the lines of "it says my dad is Hispanic, but my dad isn't Hispanic. His best friend is though and him and my mom first met about nine months before I was born..."

Phil Dhingra said on February 24, 2011 1:10 AM:

Hmm Matthew, that's interesting about the insurance company. I guess I would be obliged to provide it if on their application it asked if I was a known carrier for anything.

Fil said on February 24, 2011 3:06 AM:

That's the downside of having a crappy health insurance system in the US.

Andrew said on February 24, 2011 8:18 PM:

Hey everyone, just so you know... You wouldn't have to provide any genetic info to an insurance company in the U.S. at all. Even if you had something seriously wrong. We have the Genetic Non-discrimination Act already.


Email templates said on March 16, 2011 12:33 PM:

I've been curious about getting this done as well after I saw something similar to this on a tv series on the physicist Michio Kako where they analyzed the real age of every part of his body. I completely agree with you on the anxiety that comes with finding out the potential risk you may have of diseases before opening up that email!

ezra said on March 31, 2011 12:16 AM:

Wow, $100 only. Well, the bad news (or good news, if you have unfavorable results) is that these tests can't truly predict genetic diseases. There's a long path between your sequenced DNA, expression of genes, and actual presentation. Some genetic diseases with high penetrance/expressivity (Huntington's for example, htt gene) can be predicted fairly accurately. The more immediately useful results involve carrier status as it relates to reproductive screening. Who can you mate with? Duchenne muscular dystrophy (x-linked), cystic fibrosis (autosomal recessive), tay-sachs (autosomal recessive) come to mind. Newborn screening as well. If something's wrong with your newborn, what could it be?

Hmm, also "Likely Sprinter." Not sure what they mean with this, but they may be hinting that your leg muscle mass should be relatively high in type II "fast twitch" as opposed to type I "slow twitch, efficient." If this is so, then it suggests you may be a better short distance sprinter than a marathon runner (cross-country). Then again, "Likely Sprinter" might just mean you have favorable genetics for running in general.

Guru said on April 26, 2011 8:09 PM:

Very cool man. Do you know about the DNA service started by some of our Stanford friends back in Loro? Forgot the name.

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