What I Learned About Myself from 23andMe

Like most people, I have always wondered who am I REALLY?! Fortunately we are at a time in history where those answers are just a few clicks away.

You know you’ve watched too much tv when you’ve thought perhaps I was mixed up in the hospital at birth. Perhaps I’m secretly royalty! Where in the world am I from?! My gift to myself this Christmas was DNA testing from the service 23andMe so I could finally figure out those answers.

Note: This is a review of 23andMe based on my personal experiences. I don’t have any formal science background nor was I asked to provide any opinions. I just wanted to share what I thought should anybody be considering doing DNA testing themselves.

Testing Process

I ordered my 23andMe kit on December 18th. Within a couple of days of ordering, I received a DNA testing kit in the mail.

There are a couple of different options for purchasing a testing kit. You can either get the “basic” Ancestry + Traits Kit, which will provide the breakdown of where in the world you are from, and Traits (over thirty reports including potential hair, eye colour, hair photobleaching, whether you like sweet or salty foods and more) based on your DNA. There is also a slightly more expensive Health + Ancestry Kit, which also includes genetic predispositions, wellness reports, and carrier statuses. If you do pick the basic kit, you CAN opt to add on Health after for an additional fee.

Here is 23andMe’s comparison and cost guide.

I opened the box and did the testing right after I got my kit in the mail. The first thing you do is register the kit on their website with your unique code ~ which will track every single step of the process. You then take out the testing tube out for the most fun part of the whole process: permission to SPIT!! You have to fill up a vial with a not-insignificant amount of saliva that the lab will test. It took me a good five minutes to get enough spit to fill it to the line.

Finally, your body is saliva free! There are detailed instructions on every step, and how to repackage for shipping back to the lab. The return shipping is prepaid, and you simply resend the same box it came in so there is no stress about shipping labels or postage. You simply drop the kit back into the post box and it’s on its way! You will get a tracked shipping number and can follow your sample back to the lab where it’s on to testing!

Testing Process

A little part of you travels across the country to 23andMe’s testing labs (they appear to be located in Los Angeles and North Carolina – with mine getting the tropical LA experience!) You can follow each step on the website or through email updates as your registered sample moves through testing – it’s a very interactive experience!

The kit can take 6-8 weeks to test in total – but that’s very conservative. Each step has an estimated time-frame. Some kits are randomly chosen for quality testing in the Review stage, which apparently can take up to two weeks. I’m lucky that didn’t happen to me because my goodness I was impatient (they didn’t end up testing for that particular trait… phew)! As an FYI – this was my timeline:

  • Registered and shipped (in Canada): December 22nd
  • Arrived at Lab (in Los Angeles, California): January 4th
  • Prepped: January 4th
  • Extracted: January 8th
  • Genotyped: finished January 15th
  • Reviewed: January 15th
  • Computing Your Results: started January 15th
  • Results Ready: January 17th – results were “expected” February 15th, or up to March 1st

Ancestry

Then the most exciting day came! The email that my results were ready!!

Now the exciting part! Who am I?! Let’s take a look:

I’m more colourful than I thought I would be (my insides DO match my outsides)! The map is made up from the DNA where your ancestors are believed to originate from in the past 200 or so years.

Some results were not a huge surprise: my maternal grandparents migrated to Canada in the 1950s from West Germany – so the Germany results were as expected! My Opa (paternal grandfather) was born near Chelm, Poland – so makes sense that he had Polish ancestry.

My Dad’s side has always been a little “mysterious” and unknown! That side of the family has been in Nova Scotia for a number of generations and we knew that the family had originated in England and Ireland – which seems to be pretty accurate looking at this! But the “fun” family rumour is that somebody had an ~interaction~ with a ships’ captain a few generations ago. 😉 That originated because Dad’s family has an inherited blood condition called Beta Thalassemia (which is characterized by severe anemia, fatigue, and bone disorders.) Beta Thalassemia is also called “Mediterranean Thalassemia” as it’s prevalent more in those populations (Italians and Greeks). I tested negative as a child, fortunately, but it’s always been apart of who we were. Looks like the rumour was TRUE as there is a chunk of Southern European/Italian in there.

Some of the interesting pieces the testing picked up were the Ashkenazi Jewish (albeit a tiny bit!) and the Senegambian DNA (it has 90% accuracy too and shows up on my relatives’ tests, so not just “noise”!) 1% means that it was multiple generations ago, but I am very interested in understanding the history of this person.

Health

23andMe definitely does not replace actual health advice. But understanding your genetic risks is still important. As I mentioned, I was tested for Beta Thalassemia as a child, so potential inherited risks is something that’s always been at the back of my mind.

The Health Testing feature provides insight into a number of Predispositions (like Macular Degeneration, BRCA, Celiac Disease, Late Onset Alzheimer’s, and Type 2 Diabetes, etc), potential Carrier Status (Beta Thalassemia, Cystic Fibrosis, Tay-Sachs, etc), and Traits:

I ended up not having any of the tested Beta Thalassemia variants (which I was already aware, but good to see!):

The test I was the most nervous for was the BRCA1/2 variant test which literally stands for “BReast CAncer gene” as it is a gene mutation known to cause a higher lifetime risk of breast cancer. BRCA gene has been in the news frequently over the past few years, brought into the forefront by Angelina Jolie who was found to have the gene and opted to have preventative surgery. Fortunately, I don’t have any of the tested variants. Again, not a replacement for healthcare and testing, but it still a relief and good awareness!

Some of the fun traits that your genetics can predict and 23andMe can tell you are such as dimples, eye colour, ear lobe type, hair colour, whether you have red hair, a widow’s peak, and ice cream flavour:

Now you know too much about my earwax!

The correct answer to the Ice Cream question is BOTH swirled together!

It’s worth noting, and 23andMe is pretty explicit in the tutorial you are required to take, that the Traits are “based on your DNA and data contributed by other customers.” So meaning, it’s only as good as the genetic information provided in comparison to other 23andMe customers with similar genetics, but it’s fun to think about.

DNA Relatives

You can OPT IN to find DNA Relatives (it’s not a requirement if you don’t want to.)

The site will show you your potential closest matches based on your shared DNA and shared segments, and estimate your relationship (I have over 1,500 matches)! I ended up finding a few of my Dad’s cousins over in Nova Scotia and lots of distant relatives. Doesn’t look like I’m secretly a princess or related to anyone who is going to stop the press! Boo!

You can then chose to message your relatives to get more information and build your family tree.

It appears that most users of 23andMe are North America-based, so unfortunately there are very few individuals from my mom’s side. Hoping that more of my family can do testing so our genetic picture becomes more clear!

In conclusion, DNA testing is very fascinating! I remember wondering about the possibilites when shows like CSI brought DNA knowledge to the forefront. Now it’s possible for ANYBODY to find out exactly who they are.

You do have to consider your own personal beliefs on privacy and whether it’s information you want to know and whether you can deal with potential outcomes (good and bad). But for me, this was a wonderful opportunity!

If you’re looking for more learning opportunities and experiences on 23andMe, I suggest checking out the 23andMe Subreddit!

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