Nowadays, you can’t use your smartphone without partaking in some sort of cloud storage that’s undeniably you, everywhere. Whether it’s your Google or Mac ID, your pictures, your music, so forth, we rely on the idea that somewhere out there, our information is being stored securely and we can retrieve it at any time. But there’s another form of secure storage out there that’s extremely close to us and still relatively untapped. It’s our DNA. Common to any living organism, geneticists have only begun to understand what those 3 billion base pairs mean and what functionality (or lack thereof) they provide us as human beings. For $99, genomics company 23andMe will examine your permanent source code and provide you some pretty interesting information on who you are as a person, whether you may like it or not.
The notion that we’re formed of specific chemical compositions only arose in the past 150 years. As technology advanced in the atomic age, we discovered that these compounds formed long strands of self-replicating code common in every one of our cells and unique to each person. Further still, this code tell us how many of our characteristics exist, such as our predisposition to diseases like Alzheimer’s, how curly our hair is, or our ancestry. It wasn’t until 2000, when I was in high school, that the Human Genome Project released their rough draft of the human genetic code, with more being learned all the time.
While sequencing our personal genome – which is our entire code – still costs $5-$10,000, 23andMe gets away with bargain basement prices by only examining specific markers within it. You see, only 2% of our entire code actually makes us us while the remainder, as understood, is the leftover genetic rubbish of millions of generations of alterations to the original humans and their predecessors. Because the sample size is so small however, there’s room for error. On top of that, genetic studies are still in their earliest stages. While we can’t change our code, new gene therapies from this research are rolling into the mainstream that compensate for things that our bodies can’t do on their own, based on that information. In Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, scientists were regularly sequencing the genomes of his cancer and developing customized medicines to battle it. His refusal to seek treatment and the nature of the cancer eventually defeated him, but this kind of ultra-specific treatment could be common in the future.
Using the 23andMe kit is actually pretty simple: all you do is spit into a vial and send it off to their labs for examination. They report that within 4-6 weeks, you’ll be able to see the results of the screening through their website. Because this information is some of the most private you can have, you’re required to acknowledge a number of forms like any medical institute. 23andMe claims that their service isn’t to be used as a medical guide or advice of any sort because your genes can’t describe how fat you are or how many cigarettes you smoke a day. However, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to acknowledge these lifestyle choices and sicknesses through a battery of surveys. You’ll also be exposed to things you may or may not want to know, as noted in the signing documents:
You may learn information about yourself that you do not anticipate. This information may evoke strong emotions and has the potential to alter your life and worldview. You may discover things about yourself that trouble you and that you may not have the ability to control or change (e.g., your father is not genetically your father, surprising facts related to your ancestry, or that someone with your genotype may have a higher than average chance of developing a specific condition or disease). These outcomes could have social, legal, or economic implications.
Curiosity. Our genetics remain, to our knowledge, the last frontier in knowing who we are and where we come from. There’s still so much to be learned. Sure, there’s some morbid curiosity in knowing whether we’re more or less susceptible to various health issues, but there’s some sense of community involved. All of us are made of these same components and, in a clever aspect of the service, you can determine your true genetic origin and even meet people that 23andMe have identified as distant relatives based on how similar your code is.
23andMe’s service used to cost up to $1,000 in years past with a subscription, but with the advancement of genetic screening technologies, and new funding to the tune of $50 million, 23andMe is making a stab at becoming the de facto vault of genetic information by getting more samples to study. As they’re able to receive more and more DNA, the more valuable the service will become and the more information they’ll be able to read from the same code you’ve already submitted. If you enlist your family members to take samples, you learn even more, validating or denying the anecdotal evidence you’ve gotten about your paternal family’s heart diseases or your maternal family’s diabetes and dementia.
I’m looking forward to taking one of these tests in the next few weeks and follow up with you guys to see what information I get – to the extent I’ll be interested in divulging it in the interest of privacy. It could be an interesting exercise for the FleshEatingZipper community and maybe we’ll learn something collectively about ourselves. Stay tuned!