23andMe: one inch of spit in a tube and $99 explains a lot

Welp, 23andMe has spoken: My in-demand, keep-you-on-your-toes relational volatility and high-test professional masochism come from an honest place. Here’s the lab report!

avoidance of errors

the verdict

All those nights I spent sobbing and listing to and fro while singing inaccurate lyrics to Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car”* because a lady (or gentleman, if we’re talking pre-2002, which we’re not) had broken my heart a third or fourth time? The jobs I stayed in far too long as my dreams curled up like be-salted slugs, all snotty and petulant? My willingness to visit Reddit every once in a while, just to see what’s up? There’s a gene for that! Science, y’all!

For those who don’t know: 23andMe uses saliva samples to take a peek at your DNA. Six weeks after you send in your sample, you get an-email with information about your ethnic ancestry; inherited conditions (like if you’re a carrier for cystic fibrosis) vulnerability to diseases such as Parkinson’s or heart disease; whether or not asparagus makes your pee smell funny; and lots more.

My report accurately described my eye color, hair texture, height, body-mass index, later-than-average menarche, and reaction to certain medications. In the 18th century, this would SO be witchcraft.

Some of it is opaque, like I’m an “AG genotype” (which I have decided stands for “Akimbo Gangsta.”) The above study (in case of tl;dr) found that:

“People with the GG genotype learned to avoid choices with negative feedback relatively easily, while people with AG or AA genotypes did not learn to avoid these choices; in other words, they did not learn from their mistakes.”

I guess AG’s are like rats who persist in taking the wrong turn through the maze no matter how many times they get shocked. Their rat friends are over in the safe corner, eating Froot Loops and having their velvety ears stroked by good-natured graduate research assistants, but AG rats just keep getting zap zap zapped.

This particular genetic finding is more interesting to me than the rest (even more than learning I have a big chunk of German DNA, or that my mother is just a teensy bit Asian). It’s true that my history includes many...definitively themed mistakes that made me suffer — but it’s also not true. Because while some of my choices were “inefficient” in terms of avoiding pain, some were an honest attempt to find things out for myself (“What would my life be like if I changed careers again?”) Others were culturally supported (“This raging case of bulimia sure is painful, but I do get lots of compliments on my body.”) Still more were an assertion of faith in people in whom I saw potential rather than limitations or hazards (“Imma move to Canada to marry a pre-operative transsexual I’ve never seen in direct sunlight!”)

I’ve not succeeded in avoiding pain, but neither have I failed at finding joy — sometimes in the midst of pain or even or because of it. For example: I wandered around Toronto brokenhearted and lost because I’d trusted someone in a way that caused pain — a way I had trusted before and would again — but as I wound in and out of the frozen streets I found color and music; art and drama; weird ways of making money; an array of inimitable people. I wandered into new places and emerged with treasures tangible and non. One night I was bonedeep cold and couldn’t go home because she was crazy so I walked into a bookstore, shook the snow out of my hair, bought a rare copy of “Jane Eyre”and let the story devour me in a new and stunning way.

I didn’t crawl back inside myself. I stayed for the party, even if I was the only one who showed up.

I always stay for the parties. I stay for the funerals too, and the weddings and births and screaming night terrors. And ultimately, I prefer the person I became over who I would have been if “negative feedback” was enough to make me miss any of these things.

I’m awake. I’m alive.

And I’m making fewer truly shitty choices as I hit late youth — and that’s what I am, since my DNA says I’m likely to live to 100 and I probably won’t get Alzheimer’s. (If I’d gotten bad news from that quarter, my plan was to put a big bottle of Xanax on the mantel with a Post-it reading, “If you can’t remember what these pills are for, take them all.”)

So I think that my She’ll never learn genetic legacy; my Lady, are you nuts? zapped-rat fate is ameliorated by experience and a conscious choice to learn from it and bend it to my will. I believe that the ability to use one’s mistakes is the most crucial ingredient to a successful life (followed closely by adaptability to change and an appreciation of the absurd).

That, and staying off the smack, I guess.




*”Well I had a feeling that I’m a log/Well I had a feeling that I’m a piece of one/Piece of one/Piece of one.”

21 thoughts on “23andMe: one inch of spit in a tube and $99 explains a lot

  1. DAMMIT The 23andMe Personal Genome Service is not available in the state of Maryland due to state-specific clinical laboratory testing statutes in place there. If you reside in Maryland we ask that you please not proceed with ordering or circumventing the law by ordering to another state. Unfortunately we can’t provide a timeline as to when our services will be made available to Maryland residents. We’ll provide further updates on our website as more information becomes available. We hope to make our services available to the residents of Maryland in the future.

  2. You have out done yourself Phona…. I feel such a sense of kinship with how you describe your life. It may be in our DNA it may not, or in the stars dear Brutus, but Jane Eyre on the streets of a Canadian city has me in a state of awe and mystery.

  3. WHY MUST THE RESIDENTS OF mARYLAND ALWAYS BE DENIED– OH What a great whine, a really really great lesbian whine for the season. May the angel send you the great love of your life… direct from Toronto perhaps? 🙂

  4. Jane Eyre is definitely a good book to bury yourself in if you are hurt. I can see how it would rebuild your sense of your own worth and your ability to survive.

  5. Also, I have such ambiguity about 23AndMe! It’s hard to put it all into words. I love the concept — have your genome sequenced, have them tell you as much about you as they can discern from said genome — and would totally do something like that if I had any money. (I looked into the Personal Genome Project, which is similar but not a for-profit company.) But I have my doubts about how well they do it; particularly about how good they are at sticking to what is actually known about each gene or SNP or whatever that they’re talking about.

    (I have this ongoing project I’m doing on my blog, the Autism-Related Gene Spotlight, where I describe genes that have mutant versions that have been identified as having something to do with autism. I do this because I really do want to know what autism is on a molecular level, how we differ from y’all physically and chemically, but in doing it I have also found that a lot of these linkages are very poorly understood, and may come from characterizations of just a few people, if not a single person. And a lot of times it takes the form of, “Here’s a person who has a whole lot of different abnormalities; let’s sequence their genome and see what we find.” Which is a perfectly fine way to do science! It’s just that you might not get very tidy results, and what you do get is preliminary, a place to start looking for more information, rather than an answer to whatever questions you may have been asking. You might get a result like, “Oh, wow, I had no idea [whatever area of whatever chromosome] could have anything to do with nervous-system development!” So what I keep saying in my posts is that these aren’t autism genes, they’re genes that have something to do with the development and functioning of the nervous system, and are likely implicated in a whole lot of different conditions affecting that part of the body.

    I suspect there is something similar going on with the thing you’ve written about here. I Googled it, and the thing it actually does is make you produce fewer copies of a particular dopamine receptor in your brain. I do not know how much you know about neurotransmitters in general or dopamine in particular, but they do MANY THINGS. The body is clever, adaptive and thrifty, and it never makes a molecule it doesn’t have lots and lots of uses for. Which means that it is very hard to tease out exactly what will happen if you change one thing in such a convoluted chain of causation. Because a lot of times, one of the things a neurotransmitter or other signaling molecule does is regulate its own production, so changing the amount of [whatever it is] pharmaceutically might actually end up having counter-intuitive effects or no net effect because a new equilibrium is reached. Ask me about antidepressants sometime! Or don’t.)*

    Anyway, it looks like the FDA had similar reservations to the ones I have tried to express here. But what I hope — not just hope, think — the outcome will be is not a ban on personal genomics, but better personal genomics being done later. “Later” meaning, probably five, ten years, not twenty or fifty or a hundred.

    *Is there a prize on this blog for Longest Parenthetical?

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