23 and Me: Genetics for Dummies?


Genetics company 23andMe launched this week. For $999 the company will send you a kit with a container you fill with saliva. You send it back to the company and here’s what they do:

“After receiving your sample, lab professionals extract DNA from cells in your saliva. Your DNA is then chopped up into shorter strands and copied many times via a process called amplification. Next, your DNA is washed over a small microchip-like device that contains short strands of synthetic DNA. The synthetic DNA fragments latch onto the pieces of your DNA that are a complementary match. Then a laser-scanning step reveals which strands of synthetic DNA are stuck to your DNA to determine your genotype. The chip used in our process is the Illumina HumanHap550+ BeadChip, which reads more than 550,000 SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms) plus a 23andMe custom-designed set that analyzes more than 30,000 additional SNPs. What this means is that the laboratory process reads nearly 600,000 data points on your genome.”

23andmeOnce the company has completed the analysis, you receive an email with a login and password. You are then able to search among the thousands of data points for things like Alzheimer’s, heart disease, arthritis, and see if you are genetically predisposed to many of the unknowns that cloud your biological future.

The New York Times had one of its writers go through the process.

The company was founded by the wife of Google founder Sergey Brin, and Google has already funded it to the tune of $3.9 million. Will Google eventually own you, the universe, and everything in between???

While 23andMe has an extensive and very clear privacy statement, the question remains — what’s to happen should your genetic information accidentally become public? There are considerations. I suppose that’s a chance you have to take. The service may be particularly fascinating for those who are adopted and don’t have any idea about history of disease in their families or don’t have clarity about their genetic ancestry.

As someone in that particular situation, I do find it intriguing. Would you want to know?


  1. Taylor says

    While it may be stepping into the privacy concerns gray area, I would still totally do it if I had $999 to blow.

    I don’t even really need it, I know my families genetic history. I just find it incredibly interesting; the information you could learn would be pretty cool.

  2. says

    Yes I would, Andy. Of privacy issues are to be taken into consideration. But I would like to find out beforehand which diseases my cute self is predisposed to incur. Crazy, maybe?

  3. Paul says

    If this is truly accurate and informative, I would hope that in short time it becomes part of a basic physical (exam). Knowledge of one’s health and genetic propensities should be a toolkit that everyone deserves.

    And, call me blindingly optimistic (though no one has ever called me that), I suspect that in 10 years this sort of thing will become standard.

  4. anon (gmail.com) says

    Hmmmm…. Recent studies have shown that saliva samples tend to be contaminated with the DNA of fungi and bacteria always present in the mouth. Blood, hair and urine are actually better sources.

  5. Jordan says

    I for one certainly don’t want to know. I’ve done some many drugs in my short yet wild life, I’m pretty much fucked no matter what (and not in the good way). I don’t want to consider that part of my future.

    If one thinks certain things can be altered through this knowledge, and has faith in medicine, then go for it. I just have no faith in the medical community (been to rehab too many times and seen too many shady dr’s)

    As for privacy, if you think your info will remain private, you are just kidding yourself. This is the era of Big Brother, and it will be available, don’t kid yourself. Government agencies, insurance companies, and prolly to anyone else with deep enough pockets.

    If medical science can produce progress on some of this stuff, that’s great. I’m just not that optimistic. What about global warming? That’s gonna fuck us up sooner than we all realize.

    Why not just party & enjoy yourself? But then again, I’m just a vain and “vapid” boy (whatever vapid means)

  6. Joel says

    I would want to know, but not that way. I’d get it done through my doctor’s office, or through someplace that can explain it on site. I would not want all that information on the Internet behind just a password. In fact, in this day and age of genetic understanding, I’m baffled as to why it isn’t already a much more common procedure.

  7. Greg says

    I’m also adopted and would consider this, but only if there was some guarantee that the information was wiped from the “23andme” server once the results were mailed to me. I’m concerned that insurance and mortgage companies would have too much to gain from obtaining this information and it would inevitably end up in their hands. I don’t see any reason why the company would hold onto the information if it didn’t remain a tradable asset afterwards.

  8. Wheezy says

    This is not a good idea because as soon as you know what you’re predisposed to the insurance companys could claim it as a pre-existing condition.

  9. says

    I’m in the same boat. I very much want a DNA study and a full body scan, but not with an operation funded by Google. They have a very nasty habit of constructing privacy rules that mysteriously have holes for projects 5 years down the line.

    After the whole China thing with them and Yahoo! I’m just not interested in supporting them in any way. Especially with information that could be used to restrict my travel, establish pre-existing conditions for health insurance, or, God forbid, result in some quarantine camp situation.

    I’ve blogged repeatedly on how state and local govt regularly violate HIPPA regulations when it comes to releasing patient information.


    David B.

  10. Jordan says

    My post should have said “I’ve done SO (not some) many drugs in my…” see what limited brain cells do for ya?

    Anyway. There is no way this info would not fall into the wrong hands. I guarantee your medical records are already being seen by people without authorization. Guarantee it. You wouldn’t believe how loose and/or shady some doctor’s offices are.

  11. Andrew says

    A different voluntary genetic test is being sponsored for completely different reasons by the Genographic Project – information at
    https://www3.nationalgeographic.com/genographic/ There is a really interesting documentary on DVD on Spencer Wells’ researches into how our ancestors fanned across the planet, based on studies of our DNA: The Journey of Man. The NG test costs $100 to test your choice of your father’s or mother’s descent from their ancient forebears. There are two different tests depending on your choice – one is of DNA in your Y chromosome if you are a man and are curious about your father’s descent, the other is for both men and women and is a test of mitochondrial DNA which comes from the mother to both sons and daughters. Of course, men could choose to have both tests done on their DNA in order to research both sides. Whatever is left over from the kit fee is used by National Geographic, a non-profit, to fund cultural preservation projects among indigenous peoples around the world. I am tempted!

  12. says

    @ Matthew Rettenmund “my ability to generate saliva is unsurpassed.”

    You wouldn’t be bragging about anything, would ya? LOL

    I would do this but… To be honest, I am a doctors worst nightmare. I self-medicate whenever I can (through tons of research). Whenever I see a physician I’ve usually already diagnosed myself and that pisses them off. I could only imagine how it would be if knew beforehand I had something major. But in all honesty it is something to think about.

    But like someone else said, where would the insurance companies fit in. I could be a money savor in the long run with preventative care rather than post treatment which is usually more expensive so maybe the insurance companies would welcome this technology and even cover it as some point in the future.

  13. RedCedar says

    Had I the money and certainty as to privacy I would want to know about any predispositions to diseases I could do something meaningful to avoid.

  14. RedCedar says

    Had I the money and certainty as to privacy I would want to know about any predispositions to diseases I could do something meaningful to avoid.

  15. Morten says

    When the human genome was released in 2000 there were more than 1.2 mio human SNPs known. Now it’s more like 10-30 mio. And besides that there are insertions and deletions that also affect susceptibility to disease. 1000 dollars (even tho the dollar is ridiculously cheap) is a steep price to determine that you may be more prone to get a disease that you’ll probably never get. Micro-array analysis of cohorts is a powerful tool for basic research into disease pathways but it’s not ready for diagnostics. No matter the result of your analysis the only useful prevention tool that you’ll get out of it is “Eat greens and do exercise”.
    I call rip-off.

  16. WindReader says

    I am also adopted. I take every precaution I can reasonably manage to avoid nasty chronic conditions such as cancer and heart disease. I am not sure that I would change much if I had more information, but it would be nice to be able to target my prevention. however, I have also adopted a child and that thousand can be better spent on saving for college or even holiday presents! I will wait a few years and I expect that my insurance will cover it as indicated medical intervention.

  17. rob adams says

    Put a hold on ordering this service; The price is bound to drop, a lot, in the coming year or two as this market grows becomes more product savvy.

    That said, this is a pretty cool gift.
    (e.g., “Use this kit to find out about your genetic-history and profile, a gift from…” to gift loved ones and a few lasting friends. Why, even a high-quality hardcopy analysis, ponying flashy color graphs on large glossy pages, could be a potential addon-service with some future competitor’s product and service.

    I’d wait for the price to drop and the service to mature.

  18. jimzone says

    I’m much more interested in using dna analysis to know more about my ancestry, what part of the world my line originated in. you can find that out for more like $100. i already know what part of the world my line ends in… seattle. sad in a way, i’ve tried & tried to have children but no luck. wrong sex, as it turned out.

  19. Jay says

    Love the idea. I started watching Gattaca last night though, which raises some interesting questions for its future use.