23andMe co-founders Linda Avey and Anne Wojcicki were in Switzerland last week for the World Economic Forum. When they announced on Monday that they would be providing the 23andMe service free to 1,000 conference attendees, Michael Arrington of TechCrunch was a little bummed – he had already purchased the service.
Arrington asked for a refund, but our fearless leaders wouldn’t go for it. Instead they struck a deal – they’d give him a free kit that he could then give away to a TechCrunch reader. Arrington made a contest of it, saying he would choose whoever posted the best comment explaining why knowing their genetic background is important to them.
One reader, Jorel, wanted the service in order to share the data with others, because there “still seems to be a bit of confusion about what kinds of things the kit can determine…”
Many of the other responses – there were more than 200 – illustrated some of that confusion. So we’d like to clear a few things up by commenting on a few of them.
First, let’s cover the basics. 23andMe is a personal genotyping service. The process starts when you send a saliva sample to our contracted laboratory. They extract DNA from the cells that are floating around in your spit and then run that genetic material on a “SNP chip.” This little device queries more than 500,000 spots in the genome that have been found to vary between people. The data are then sent to 23andMe, where we put them into a secure account that helps you put the information in context.
But what does all of this really mean? What can and can’t we give you? To try and answer these questions, let’s see what some of the TechCrunch readers had to say.
Many people wanted the 23andMe Personal Genome Service because they are concerned about their health, now and in the future. Pascal, for example, said his “family is plagued with cancers and I want to know whether there is some sort of mutation running around in our gene pool.” Another reader said both he and his wife have a history of autism in their families, and he wants to know their chances of having an autistic child.
Unfortunately, 23andMe can’t help these people. It’s true that many serious health conditions, cancer and autism among them, are thought to have a genetic basis. For some conditions there are DNA tests that can diagnose the condition or predict whether it will be passed on to a child.
But that’s not what 23andMe does. There is a health component to many of the scientific studies 23andMe makes accessible as part of its service – for example, studies have found that people with a certain DNA variation at one spot in their DNA are 3.32 times more likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis than those with another. But that doesn’t mean a person with the high-risk version has or will ever get rheumatoid arthritis. Other genetic factors, as well as environmental factors, will also influence a person’s odds of getting arthritis. At 23andMe, we think you deserve to see your genetic data in the context of meaningful scientific research – but we also want to make sure you understand specifically that this information does not constitute a diagnosis or predictor of disease.
Several TechCrunch readers wanted the 23andMe service out of curiosity about their roots. Ted said that his mother had always told him that he was descended from Martin Luther. If 23andMe could help him prove or disprove this, it would “give me something to say to Mom next time I see her.” Ted also wanted to know if he shared any genetic traits with Michael Arrington (whether he’s really curious or just trying to score points in the contest, we don’t know.)
We can’t tell Ted if he is descended from Martin Luther. But 23andMe does have tools that let you use your genotyping data to compare yourself to populations from around the world, finding out who you are most similar to. With our mitochondrial DNA tool you can trace your maternal ancestry back through your mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s (you get the idea) mother, all the way back to the Mother of all Mothers (MoM) – a woman who lived in Africa about 175,000 years ago.
If Ted wins the contest (or decides to buy the 23andMe service for himself) he can in fact find out if he shares ancestry with Michael Arrington. All he has to do is send Michael an invitation asking to share profiles.
Finally, many adoptees and adoptive parents entered TechCrunch’s contest, saying they thought 23andMe could help give them or their children a better sense of where they came from. Brian said the he and his wife are in the process of adopting a child from abroad and they would like to be able to give their new child information about his or her heritage in order to help build identity.
Other adoptees were more concerned about their lack of information on their family medical history. Adam Conner was adopted from Korea when he was just a few months old. “Every time I have to fill out a form at the doctor’s office,” he said, “I get to skip over the family history part, which saves me time, but also means I have no clue what’s coming down the medical turnpike for me.”
23andMe’s service has a lot to offer adoptees. Our ancestry features (described in the last section) can tell a person a little something about the people and cultures they might be descended from. As far as medical information goes, we can’t put together a family medical history for you – what we can do is connect your genetic data to meaningful scientific research. One last important thing to note – 23andMe’s service isn’t a paternity test, so we can’t tell you who your father is.
The Final Word
In the end, we think the best reason to sign up for 23andMe’s service might have been given by TechCrunch reader Nasser: “… the feeling of walking into a world that has been unknown territory to the human being up until now. … The feeling of being on the front line of seeing and experiencing such new frontiers…I guess it’s like how a kid feels pretty much every day…”
For the first time in history, you have the opportunity to learn about your own genome. And you get to see how your data compares to that of your family and friends. Someday you may even help contribute to science’s understanding of how genes interact with the environment to make individuals who they are.