How I learned to start worrying and hate my genes

Genes! We’ve all got them. But what do they actually do? And can they predict the future?

Earlier this year I was reading a news story about how such-and-such genes can increase your risk of such-and-such. And I couldn’t help but find that terrifying. I mean, having it hard-coded into your DNA (literally speaking, not the horrible way this is used everywhere now) that you’re susceptible to things more than other people, and knowing there’s nothing you can do about it, is pretty terrifying. A real life fatalist nightmare.

And worse still, unless you get tested there’s no way of knowing what your genes are. You could be sitting on a ticking time bomb of cancer risk genes right now and not even know it. Hell, you could wake up one day and have your head just suddenly explode! With genes, anything could happen.

As such, I couldn’t help but take interest when I noticed people talking about online gene analysis sites. Specifically, I saw some buzz around the site 23andMe – an online genetics report site, so called for the 23 pairs of chromosomes we have. With far too much time on my hands, I decided to give it a go.

Ordering the kit was a bit fiddly, since it was coming from America. The $99 for the kit wasn’t so bad, but I had to basically pay that again in shipping fees. But the kit arrived promptly within a few days.

I then had had the tricky task of using the kit. This involved snapping a load of tags and flasks and beakers and fluids and things, and spitting into a test tube. Not just a little spit either, like enough to fill a large dish. Seriously, it took me like 20 minutes and was pretty disgusting.

Next up, I had to return the thing. This took a few days as I had to schedule a DHL Express pickup and fill out a load of customs forms. I also had to answer the difficult question of what was in the package a few times, to which I just replied “er.. genetics..stuff?” The package itself had this written on it, which made it look even more suspicious:

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In any case, it seemed to arrive back at the lab without any trouble.

Now, I was in this for the whole health information aspect – I wanna know how I’m gonna die. But 23andMe has a strong focus on genealogy and all that, using the markers in your DNA to tell you where your ancestors came from. That’s all pretty interesting I guess, but it’s not that big of a deal for me. However, it quickly turned out that I should have done a bit more research, as the FDA shut down all other aspects of 23andme’s service. This meant they could only offer the genealogy stuff, and not the health stuff. Oops!

So anyway, the latest is that they’ve received my…sample and analysis has begun. Surprise surprise my genetic history is from Europe/Middle East, much like most people in Europe. Well, that’s kind of a letdown.

But it doesn’t end there. Turns out you can export the raw genetic data from 23andMe to other sites. Take THAT, FDA! Yay! So for a small £5 fee I sent my genetic code off to the good people at Promethease. 20 minutes later, I had my results.

And this is where it gets interesting.

The data is a bit hard to work through, as it’s all very technical and cross-referenced with actual genetic research sites. But Promethease do a pretty ok job of allowing you to navigate your results to find what you want. A lot of it looks like this:

Screen Shot 2014-09-13 at 20.28.38

I don’t know what this means but it has a “Repute” value of bad. And that’s bad. And filtering by “Good”, “Bad” and neutral, I was able to get a good idea of what’s going on with my genome. Here are some highlights.

Starting with the Neither Good nor Bad:

  • GS144 – Male. Great! So at least we know this thing’s accurate.
  • GS114 – Western Europe Haplogroup Y. Again, yup! Pretty cool you can figure out where I’m from based on DNA.
  • RS1426654 – probably light-skinned. Bingo!
  • GS157 – more stimulated by coffee. Yeah, ok! I suppose. Maybe..
  • GS256 – blue eyes. Er, no? Apparently though “there seems to be a distinction between the dark brown eyes typical for asian and african ancestry, and ‘blue’ for lighter eyes found in europeans” so they get this one.
  • GS285 – you will lose 2.5x as much weight on a low fat diet. Cool, diet advice!
  • RS3124314 – straighter hair. Nice.
  • RS4570625 – higher scores on anxiety-related personality traits. It’s like they’re reading my mind!

And so on. These were all spookily accurate, giving me confidence in the other results too.

Next, the “Good”:

  • GS273 – Lowest risk (13% of white women) of Atrial Fibrillation reported by 23andMe. Yay!
  • RS9536314 – intelligence; longevity. Woo!
  • RS1815739 – Mix of muscle types. Likely sprinter. Erm, well I probably have done a sprint in my life at some point?
  • GS101 – probably able to digest milk. Uh, yeah, probably.
  • RS1042725 – ~0.4cm taller. Ladies.
  • RS671 – Alcohol Flush: Normal, doesn’t flush. Normal hangovers. Normal risk of Alcoholism. Normal risk of Esophageal Cancer. Disulfiram is effective for alcoholism. Cool.

And so on. Some less accurate stuff there, but pretty radical nonetheless.

Now the, er, “Bad”:

  • RS1333049 – 1.9x increased risk for CAD (Coronary Artery Disease). Well that sucks. Nothing I can do about it, looks like I’m gonna die of some huge heart attack 🙁
  • RS738409 – higher odds of alcoholic liver disease, increased liver fat. Combined with the whole “you’re good at alcohol” thing above, this kinda sucks too.
  • RS1021737 – significantly higher plasma total homocysteine concentration. GODDAMIT (?!)
  • RS1801282 – watch out for high fat in diet. Shut up, genes!
  • RS1042522 – Slightly shorter lifespan ;(
  • RS2180439 – Increased risk of Male Pattern Baldness. At this point, I stopped reading. My hair is my life.

There were a lot more scary ones too, which I didn’t like so much.

Can you genes tell you how you’re going to die? Well…. probably not. The results above are really just “x amount of people in this survey with this gene showed a tendency for y”. And lots of these are super common anyway (I think pretty much everyone is going to die of heart disease it seems).

So it’s kinda scary, but not really the worst thing ever. I’ll live!

Still kinda miffed about my homocysteine concentration though. Really thought I had that nailed down.

3 thoughts on “How I learned to start worrying and hate my genes

  1. There is another company you can try out to get the most out of your raw data. It’s called Xcode Life, and it gives well-curated reports on genetics, fitness and nutrition. Here is the link to their website, you can check them out; https://www.xcode.life

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