About a month ago, in a fit of curiosity and productivity, I sent off my sample of spit to the 23andMe labs.
And a couple weeks ago, I got the results back.
A few years ago I did some digging into my genealogy and discovered some fascinating information about my family, as far back as the Normans in 990 AD.
Still, I was curious to see what my genes actually had to say.
What my genealogical research suggested was that my ancestors came mainly from England and Germany, though there are peripheral relatives to whom I don’t have access.
The intriguing piece is where the sub-Saharan African DNA came from!
My ancestry timeline in the report posits that it was introduced by someone who was 100% West African sometime in the mid 18th or early 19th century, so I am truly fascinated by whatever story there is there.
The breakdown of my European ancestry was more nuanced.
The blurb with this chart adds: “Genetically and geographically the French and Germans are at the heart of Europe.” The results don’t break down for French and German, but I do know that there’s quite a bit of German on my father’s side.
It’s important to observe that national identity and ethnic heritage are two different things, just as family identity and genetic match might not overlap.
Seeing this breakdown of my ancestry adds more data points to my story than it does shake any sense of identity that I’d built. My ancestors came from northwestern Europe. My paternal grandfather is Hungarian, and my genome suggests I have other ancestors from that part of the world.
My family is apparently well traveled!
I liked this bit from the explanation of “Broadly European.”
To me, this illustrates how interconnected we are, and how our planet and its climate over time have shaped our history.
The report also goes into some genetic traits I have, such as the variant rs4481887, which allows me to detect the asparagus metabolite in my urine!
I am also apparently less likely to taste certain bitter compounds, and more likely to prefer salty over savory. Both are true of me.
The report also correctly predicted that I do not have a cleft chin, cheek dimples, no unibrow, and no widow’s peak; and that I do have darker-colored eyes and detached ear lobes.
Interestingly, it predicted that I am likely to have darker colored hair, which I do now—although I used to have copper red hair when I was younger.
I also do not appear to have the gene for hair loss, which correlates with the fact that my maternal grandfather still has a full head of hair.
There are other random things confirmed in the report:
- My ring finger is indeed longer than my index finger
- I don’t have many freckles
- I have no back hair
- Very fair skin
- Straight hair (not curly or wavy)
- I don’t sneeze when exposed to direct sunlight (the photic sneeze response)
There were also some wellness traits, such as my likelihood to an average weight and be lactose tolerant. I’m also less likely to be a deep sleeper (thanks to my ADA gene producing an enzyme called adenosine deaminase, which at higher levels can cause a person to stay awake longer) or move much in my sleep, both of which are very true.
I also do not have a gene for the alcohol flush reaction, meaning that my face does not turn red when I drink alcohol, and I do not experience unpleasant symptoms after drinking and can break down alcohol into a harmless substance.
Apparently I have my East Asian ancestors to thank for that.
I also carry a gene (CYP1A2) that contains instructions for an enzyme that allows me to break down 95% of the caffeine I consume, meaning it doesn’t affect me as strongly as it does other people.
So my heavy coffee-drinking habit is genetic after all!
One of the things I was slightly worried about was whether I carried a gene for late-onset Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease, and thankfully I do not have either.
There were a ton of other conditions such as Gaucher Disease, hereditary fructose intolerance, and something called Maple Syrup Urine Disease for which I also do not have markers—at least for the variants they tested.
Overall, I appear to come from pretty good genetic stock, health wise. Sure, mental health issues appear to run in my family, but I seem to be made of pretty strong stuff.
My genetic muscle composition is also apparently common in elite power athletes. My particular variant is associated with fast-twitch muscle fibers, meaning I’m more likely to be a sprinter than a long-distance runner.
The most intriguing finding was that I have 327 Neanderthal variants in my genome.
We don’t know much about the Neanderthals. They went extinct c. 40,000 years ago, but archaeological evidence suggests they buried their dead, cared for their sick and elderly, crafted tools, built shelters, lived in close family groups, and (based on hyoid bones found in their remains) may have even had a language that incorporated singing¹.
Their physiology was hardy and adapted for life in northern Europe during the last Ice Age, their shorter, stockier stature being likely efficient at consolidating heat. There is evidence from our DNA that there was a period of ≈10,000 years when they interbred with modern humans.
What I am taking from this is that my genome is rich with history, that I may have inherited the hardiness of my Neanderthal forebears, and that at least some of my ancestors were not afraid of those who were different from them.
My Christian upbringing discouraged mingling with (or dating/marrying) anyone who didn’t believe what we did, yet here I am—a gay, liberal atheist.
Plus, it appears I’m made of strong stuff. What I’ve been through so far hasn’t broken me.
I’m heartier than I think.
¹ Steven J. Mithen, The singing Neanderthals: the origins of music, language, mind, and body (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).