Our genomes are the entirety of our hereditary information - of course this is not to say that they make us exactly who were are, because there is a complex relationship between our genes and our environment (much of which we do not understand), but they do provide a way for us to glimpse into our past and potentially glean insights into our future.
The human genetic sequence is a three-billion letter string of A's, T's, G's and C's (the “code” of DNA). Much of this sequence is the same in all of us. But there are roughly 10 million places in the genome where a single letter of the sequence differs from person to person. These variations are called SNPs, single nucleotide polymorphisms. Most SNPs have no effect on health or development, but it has been found that some SNPs can be used to predict an individuals ancestry, their response to certain drugs, susceptibility to environmental factors, and risk of developing particular diseases. This is where Services like 23andMe come in. They are analyzing hundreds to thousands of these SNPs.
Now that we know what 23andMe is looking at… how does the service work for a consumer… to find out, I did this for myself, well for science of course. You order a kit online… they ship it to you, and you spit into a tube and keep spitting, and then send it back to them and in 6 weeks, you have your genetic blueprint… Your ancestry (I am a Eurpoean mut and 2.7% Neandertal) and up until very recently health information (I have an elevated risk of developing gall stones), but In November, The FDA ordered 23andMe to stop supplying health information for a few different reasons: (1)they felt that results may adversely affect consumer behavior (2) they questioned the reliability of the data with regards to health claims, and (3) in one word: education, how do we prepare for this coming wave of DNA sequencing?
We will be approaching this topic in two episodes.. today is about our ancestry and next will be our future, and also claims calling into question the accuracy of such services.
A big part of what 23andMe offers is a social aspect. The ability to reach out to people who may be related to you. To share data with your friends, compare.
While researching this show, I came across two very interesting stories of self-discovery. Finding a section of your family you never knew.. and finding out that you’re not, fully who you think you are.
In part one I talk to 2nd cousins Zach and Kari who met through 23andMe… In part two I talk to Deborah and Bryan, a mother and son, who found that their family-tree is not what they thought it was.
Both Zach and Kari & Bryan and Deborah’s stories are about discovery and in both cases it worked out rather well… In fact each of them felt as though they already knew these people who they were related to but never met…
The Human Genome project is approaching it’s eleven year anniversary, the cost to sequence an entire human genome has dropped from $1 billion dollars to just $1,000 today. There were many hopes for The Human Genome Project, for it to instantly kick off a genetic revolution, and to some extent, it has… but what we found is that simple. As it turns out there are many other factors that affect how a gene is expressed such as environment - and how the environment can affect epigenetics, transcription factors, and so on. When you begin to understand how complicated it all is, you realize this is not a big data problem, but a huge data problem.
In part two of our series on personal genomics, we leave ancestry behind to discuss the accuracy of genetic testing, the ethical concerns surrounding it, and what it means for a private company to have access to your hereditary information.
My guests this week include Kira Peikoff, a writer in New York City, who wrote a piece for the New York Times called, “I Had My DNA Picture Taken With Varying Results;” Dr. Robert Klitzman, director of the Masters of Bioethics Program at Columbia University and author of, “Am I My Genes?: Confronting Fate and Family Secrets in the Age of Genetic Testing;” and Charles Seife, a professor of journalism at NYU.