23andMe 101

linda_large.jpgBy Linda Avey, 23andMe Co-Founder 

Over the past several months the press has reported a steady stream of breakthroughs in genetics. In what the New York Times has called “a continuing wave of discoveries about the genes underlying common diseases,” studies have found genetic links to breast cancer, diabetes, Crohn’s disease, restless legs syndrome, glaucoma and dozens of other diseases and conditions. These new discoveries, and many more like them, amount to nothing less than a revolution in understanding how our genetics makes us who we are.

But what are we to make of all this information? If the Times says some people have a genetic variant that increases their risk of glaucoma a hundredfold, it’s natural to ask: What does this mean for me?

That’s why we started 23andMe. Using the same tools that scientists do when they establish these connections between genes and diseases, our customers can find out how their own DNA may influence their chances of developing scores of different common conditions. They can also discover how their DNA may influence traits as varied as athletic ability, intelligence and dietary preferences.

All it takes is a half-teaspoon of spit. That small amount of bodily fluid contains enough DNA to create a digital catalogue of more than half a million points in your genetic sequence, known as SNPs, where people are known to differ from one another. Those genetic differences tend to translate into physical differences — like being left-handed, having curly hair or being lactose intolerant.

Using techniques that weren’t even available a couple of years ago, researchers are studying large sets of these SNPs and learning new things about how they correlate to the inherited aspects of what makes us who we are. 23andMe scientists are closely following this research, translating it into plain English and connecting it to our customers’ genetic profiles. Our scientists also have a set of rigorous guidelines they follow in choosing which genetic correlations to report; if certain studies don’t meet these criteria, we’ll hold off including them until further validations are published.

This is very much a work in progress. For example, researchers know that genes have a great deal to do with how tall a person is. But so far only one gene has been well demonstrated to influence height — and which version a person has translates into a less than a quarter-inch of actual stature.

And there are dozens of non-genetic, environmental factors that can have a lot more influence on a person’s height than genes do. It’s important to keep these factors in mind as we move forward with the personal genetics revolution.

At 23andMe we fully recognize the need for societies to discuss and debate the implications of this new information. We encourage discussions and welcome your feedback. And we advocate preparing for the future with measures such as the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, which would make genetic discrimination by employers and insurance companies illegal.

But we shouldn’t let these discussions hold up progress. In the last half-century, the digital revolution has utterly transformed our relationship to space and time by giving us unprecedented access to information about the world around us. With this new genetic information, the revolution will extend to our very selves.