Think having your genome tested might be fun? Trust me, it’s terrifying

News & Analysis

8th September 2016

They say that curiosity killed the cat. Thanks to DNA testing kit 23 and Me, I now know this to be false. Curiosity, instead, will kill me.

23 and Me is a ‘personal genomics’ company that provides a saliva-based genome test (more on this shortly) that unlocks information about your genetics, your health, your ancestry and more, which it posts online for you to scrutinise. Or, in my case, blub over.

The California-based company claims that its purpose is to help you manage your health and wellbeing. This is a tall order. What it actually does is analyse the personal genomes in your saliva and then, if you’re prone to hypochondria, instil in you the fear of God.

The process could not be simpler. You order your DNA collection kit on the website (it retails at £125). The DNA kit arrives in an extremely neat and virtually bombproof box. You then register the kit online – presumably to ensure you receive your personal results and not those of the orphaned and diseased recalcitrant who lives two doors down. (Actually, now I’m wishing I had been presented with the recalcitrant’s results.)

Next you have to spit in a test tube. This sounds straightforward, but it’s the only slightly fiddly aspect of the process: the bossy lines on the test tube demand that you provide litres of saliva. One must dedicate some time and attention to this stage, and have had lots of delicious dinners in recent history that can be summoned to the forefront of memory. You then insert the test tube into the bombproof box, post (postage paid) and wait.

Six weeks’ wait may seem extensive, but, with the perquisite of hindsight, it is actually an incomparably relaxing period in the overall process. You post the box, spend a day wishing the results would come sooner, then totally forget until you receive an email announcing that the results await you.

The website is easy to navigate, even for those who are less computer-literate than some. The test is, undoubtedly, innovative. Time magazine heralded it as Invention of the Year in 2008, and it’s obvious why. Furthermore, 23 and Me is also quite good fun.

But that’s all well and good, until you log in to read your results.

Results are divided into two categories: ancestry composition and health overview. Each category has subcategories: for example, Neanderthal ancestry. I discovered 2.8 per cent of my DNA is from Neanderthals. This, according to the website, is above average for the 23 and Me user. The website has a section about Neanderthals and their genetic evidence, which is fascinating stuff.

Ancestry composition is similarly entertaining. I discovered I’m three per cent Scandinavian and 0.4 per cent South Asian. Reassuringly, the website tells me I am 100 per cent Constance Watson. The infographics that map your genetic heritage are fascinating — Nigel Farage would do well to have a gander.

The health overview, however, is less jolly. Genetic risk factors, inherited conditions, traits and drug responses are all a little frightening. There are some, but few, moments of lighter entertainment embedded in the information, such as earwax type, hair curl and eye colour. It is a mind-blowing miracle of modern science that just saliva can provide this galaxy of information about your health. You can spend hours and hours falling further and further down the black hole of 23 and Me — I did – fretting over the response rate of your proton pump inhibitor metabolism. (Mine’s rapid — and I still don’t know what that means.)

23 and Me is a brilliant invention, easy to use and infinitely fascinating. But it serves to remind us that, all too often, ignorance is bliss.


  • Bronwyn Ramey Hartung

    It means that if you are prescribed a proton pump inhibitor (for gastroesophageal reflux–heartburn–or ulcers), that you will metabolize the drug more quickly than the average Joe or Jane. In other words, if you are given a standard dose, your liver will happily churn through the drug quite quickly. Your body will chuck it out without giving you time to enjoy the acid-reducing benefits. So, your physician may either prescribe a higher dose or find another medication that won’t be gobbled by your liver quite so voraciously.

    Frankly, 23andMe is fun, but the utility of its report is limited. You’re better off getting a pharmacogenetic report from an organization that can focus precisely on your slate of medications and give you and your doctor a clear picture of what is likely to work for you–and what you should avoid–throughout your life.

    • Callipygian

      She probably doesn’t have a ‘slate of medications’ (used to be ‘medicines’: I wonder what was wrong with that word). Most of us don’t.

      • Bronwyn Ramey Hartung

        Of course, but she may someday experience a health event that requires medical treatment. The beauty of genetic testing is that it provides information to last a lifetime.

  • Russ Brandt

    “terrifying” in the headline? “fretting” about the results? This information won’t damage your health, but your attitude toward could if you really respond this way. Is this just a way to get people to read or do you really think this way? Honest question.

  • israelp

    “Results are divided into two categories: ancestry composition and health overview.” What about genealogy matches? That’s what most people test for.

  • Daniel

    Wasn’t this whole check you ancestral D.N.A. thing debunked years ago. The fact that British & Irish form one category and French & German another should be reason enough for concern in this case; in fact the French & German category is ridiculous just from a basic historical perspective, the French are largely Franco-Celtic and the Germans are largely just that, German of various sorts.

  • avi

    Now you can take your 23andMe results and share with with other providers such as DNAFit and get some great information and methods on how to use your genetics in daily practice.