Among the big, eternal questions, the most compelling may be: Who am I, what do my genetics predict about my future, and will The Real Housewives series ever be canceled?
Only a dozen years ago, it cost tens of thousands of dollars to get these questions answered (except for the matter of The Real Housewives’ durability, which defies the laws of both science and taste). Arranging for a laboratory to sequence your DNA — that is, to parse the vast network of chromosomes that makes each of us a uniquely lovable human — was a huge deal. Neighbors would have been impressed by your dedication to self-inquiry, not to mention your expenditure.
Today, all you need is an easy-to-obtain home testing kit. For the cost of having a couple of cars expertly washed and waxed, a team of geneticists will decipher your biological code.
And even if you don’t know a chromosome from a chrome doorknob, you’re bound to learn lots. You might even be startled by the findings, which can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how you feel about hearing that huggable Grandma Heloise likely shared more than her wisdom during her year-long Tahiti “adventure.”
Several companies now offer direct-to-consumer DNA kits. The industry leader, 23andMe, already has 1.5 million customers. New labs, with their own gimmicks and hooks, come to market all the time. (Among the latest is TeloYears, which checks your DNA for hints about how well you’re aging.)
Whichever company you choose, the drill is the same: Once the tidy little kit arrives, you spit into the supplied tube (gobs and gobs of spit; you may want to save up!) and mail the thing off. A couple months later you receive your report. The companies don’t fully sequence the 23 pairs of complex chromosomes that make you … well, you; rather, they do a sort of CliffsNotes version, paying attention to the recessive carrier traits that matter most to the average customer. They call this genotyping.
Recently, in the great tradition of first-person journalism, I submitted my very own personal spit to the two best-known companies in this arena: the aforementioned 23andMe (which focuses on who I am) and AncestryDNA (with a focus on where I came from). I’ve got to be honest: I secretly hoped to discover that I am an exotic cocktail of ethnicities. Maybe a little Irish, a touch of Brazilian, a hint of Fijian. Alas, not to be. According to AncestryDNA, I’m exactly as uninteresting, ancestry-wise, as I had suspected: 97 percent European Jewish. (Glimmer of hope: The remaining 3 percent suggest that some long-ago relatives hailed from Great Britain or the Iberian Peninsula, two nice places. Reminder to self: Visit more often.)
So, what did 23andMe reveal about Cable Neuhaus? Essentially, nothing I didn’t already know, but its report was “fun,” as the company promised it would be. For example, it said my DNA indicated I had a 44 percent chance of having a “second toe longer.” Bingo — that’s my foot, precisely. Also: a 66 percent chance that I “can’t taste” bitter. (Correct.) A 72 percent chance of “little upper back hair.” (Yep.) A 91 percent chance of “little or no unibrow.” (Oh, geez, thank goodness true.)
There were no references to diseases that might one day fell me, because the Federal Drug Administration doesn’t allow 23andMe to go there. Acknowledging that the whole idea of direct-to-consumer DNA testing has been “controversial,” Robert C. Green, a medical geneticist at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, told me that the FDA’s concerns are legitimate, but research shows that consumers of inexpensive DNA analyses aren’t likely to “misunderstand or experience distress or have medical follow-up they do not need.” In other words, buyers of these tests generally have not freaked out over their results.
“People are basically curious about the things that make them who they are, it’s fascinating to them,” Green said. At the current price point, and given that the tests genotype rather than fully sequence, that’s a fair deal, according to Green and others. There are initiatives underway to offer more predictive testing — Am I likely to be a cancer victim? What about heart disease? Dementia? — but those results will probably get routed to a medical professional before they pop up in your inbox.
A few weeks ago I asked the nice folks at 23andMe if they ever receive complaints from customers who, for whatever reason, don’t love what their DNA reveals. Well, sure they do. “Sometimes finding out something you don’t expect, or expecting something that’s not in the product, can turn into a kind of disappointment,” a company spokesperson acknowledged in an email.
Consider the case of Bill Griffeth, a CNBC TV anchor and longtime genealogy buff who several years ago had his genome analyzed by a company called Family Tree DNA. The shocker — confirmed by a second test — was that the man he believed was his father was, uh, not. Oops. Griffeth wasn’t disappointed so much as stunned. Who was he, really? How could he have been fooled for so long? His dramatic tale was documented last year in the memoir The Stranger in My Genes.
It’s inevitable in this age of cheap genome test kits that, as we gain an ever clearer understanding of what we are, biologically speaking, we’re going to stir up some thorny questions about who we really are as complicated, emotional individuals. That mystery is not about to be solved in anyone’s laboratory.
Cable Neuhaus writes about popular culture and media.
This article is featured in the March/April 2017 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now