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?