It’s in the Genes

23andmeresultscreenA few weeks ago, I decided to send away for a DNA testing kit from the company 23andMe.  For $99, they will genotype your DNA (a very different process than sequencing), and from this information you can learn about your ancestry, what health conditions you are at risk of developing, whether or not you are a carrier for several common (and some not-so-common) inherited diseases, how you might tolerate certain drugs and what some of your physical characteristics are.  For a long time, I’d suspected that some of my behaviors and physical characteristics had an organic, biological basis and I wanted confirmation that perhaps I was correct in my thinking.

For example, of all my immediate family members, there are only 3 of us who are as obese as I am:  me, one of my dad’s brothers, and my dad’s Dad.  All three of us are/were seriously overweight.

Me and my paternal grandpa, Abel Sr., in his healthier days before Parkinson's took over.  I'm told at his healthiest, he weighed over 250 pounds at 6' tall.

Me and my paternal grandpa, Abel Sr., in his healthier days before Parkinson’s took over. I’m told at his healthiest, he weighed over 250 pounds at 6′ tall.  This photo is ca. 1975, I think.

Here I am with my cousins and brother, ca. 1980.  I stick out like a sore thumb.

Here I am with my cousins and brother, ca. 1980. I stick out like a sore thumb.

As I grew up around my cousins and siblings, it was evident that even though we all ate the same types and quantities of food and had the same activity level, something was still amiss.  Why was I so much bigger and heavier than the rest of the kids in my family?  Why was I the only one who got to be as heavy as I got, especially once I got older?

I’d known about 23andMe’s services for quite a while–in fact, when they first began offering genotyping services to the public in 2006, I’d considered scraping together the $999 they initially charged.  I decided against it, as at the time there was no way I could afford to drop a grand on something like that.  Over the past few years as DNA sequencing and genotyping technology has gotten better and faster, it has also gotten cheaper, dropping the price for the service to $99.   Back in March, a colleague of mine mentioned that he’d had his done, and that his school had paid for it because he uses the information as a teaching tool.  So I looked into it and decided that for the $99 price point, I couldn’t turn the opportunity down.

I sent away for the saliva collection kit, which arrived in about 5 days after I’d paid for it.  Once I got the kit, I eagerly donated my saliva sample, boxed it back up and immediately sent it back out to California, where 23andMe’s labs are located.

They did say it would take about 6-8 weeks so I was not in a hurry to get results.  Once I told my students about what I’d done, they were eager to see what sorts of things my DNA would reveal about me.  They were almost more eager to find out what my results were than I was!

So the other day out of curiosity, I logged in to see if any of my results had populated the secure site where my data are stored.  Sure enough, nearly all my information had been collected and uploaded.  The only information that 23andMe’s lab techs had not uploaded was information about my ancestry, which I was willing to wait on.

The information I was really chomping at the bit to look at was the health information that my genes would reveal to me.  23andMe will genotype your DNA for about 200+ health conditions, including obesity, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, various cancers, among others.  You can find out if you are a carrier for sickle cell anemia, cystic fibrosis, Tay-Sachs disease and many other inherited diseases for which there is no cure.  The two conditions I was most interested in were obesity and Parkinson’s, as my Grandpa Viro (in the photo above) had been diagnosed with it in his early 40’s and as I share many characteristics with him, I thought perhaps I too might develop it as well.

So here is what I found out:

FTO-obesitymarkerBased on my genotype for the FTO gene, my risk of being obese is 67%, where the average bear has a 54% chance of becoming obese.  Other information provided for me indicates that I have genetic markers surrounding other genes implicated in severe obesity.

When I saw this information, what I’d suspected all along about my genetics was confirmed.  It was anti-climactic in a way, but a relief at the same time.  I’d always been told by my doctors from the time I was very small that I would never be a small girl, and the information from my DNA simply put a fine point on it.  Now I can tell my surgeon and therapist they are spot on when they tell me “you’re fighting biology” because well, there’s no better confirmation of a health condition than what’s written in your genes.

I was glad to discover that I did not possess mutant markers for the BRCA genes, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s genes.  This is not to say that later on in my life another cell cycle regulator gene couldn’t mutate and cancer could develop or that some environmental factors could influence the genes I possess and cause me to develop Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.  I am fully aware that even though my genotype does not indicate genetic inheritance of those conditions, it is still possible to develop them through epigenetic inheritance.

The nice thing about 23andMe is that as more genomic research is done, your DNA profile is updated as new information becomes available.

I’m glad that I did this, even though it did have the potential to be a real Pandora’s box of information that could have drastically altered the course of my life.  My scientist’s curiosity wasn’t satisfied with “you’re always going to be big” and “you’re fighting biology,” so I had to see if what I’d always hypothesized about my biological inheritance was indeed true.

Thankfully, my biological phenotype can be surgically altered even though my genotype seems to have stacked the odds against me in terms of me losing weight and getting healthy.  And I’m closing in on a month until I’ll be able to effectively fight the genetic deck of cards I’ve been dealt so that I can finally know what it’s like to be at a healthy weight.

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