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  • Anannya Das

23andme...and Bioethics

A 23andme kit for sale on Amazon for $99.99.

Over the winter break, my friend got a 23andme kit for Christmas and got her DNA analyzed. I found this fascinating and brought up the conversation of genetic testing with my parents. I wondered if it were possible for me to know my DNA and learn what secrets my genome may hold. I was faced with two perspectives: my mother, who was starkly against the idea, and my father, who was as fascinated by it as I was.

My mother stated that 23andme was the first step to ruining the face of anonymity that my parents believed we had created for ourselves over the past decade. For example, my mother refused to let us put our emails for newsletters on any website because somehow the government could figure out where we lived. My mother believed that “we were going to give our DNA to the government and that they could use this data for their own research to create mutant humans.”

I retorted, “This is an invalid and absurd argument.”

“If 23andme was leaked to insurance companies, people would have jacked up prices for no reason other than what is written in their DNA.”

“This would be impossible to do legally, since the terms and services of the company stated that they would not share this information with insurance companies because customer trust in the company was their number one concern.”

My mother then said, “If a data breach occurred, the DNA could be leaked.”

“This would be highly unlikely, since what would be the purpose of a hacker getting genetic information on people today?” I replied. I discredited her argument and decided to drop the discussion, as my argument wasn’t being received.

I then decided to look at my father’s stance. This perspective was something that I very much identified with. My father’s purpose in wanting to do 23andme was to learn more about genetics. I wanted to learn more about genetics as well. I wanted to learn about what my DNA predisposed me to versus what characteristics my genes were already expressing, like my hair color and type, height, etc. I find it fascinating how genes in our DNA can state one thing about how we are supposed to be physically and emotionally, but the environment we live in can change our DNA. What was especially fascinating was the fact that one study showed an increase in criminal activity associated with a inhibited protein. The interesting part was that there were many people who were born with this inhibition, but they weren’t criminals. The only way that this gene affected an individual was if the correct combination of environment and genes was achieved. Epigenetics, the study of how environment and genetics relate, was what fascinated me and my father and made us decided to get our DNA analyzed.

When I got the kit, I was surprised by the simplicity of it all. The box was quite small and had only the necessary items to register the kit and to give a sample of your spit. I found this quite charming. I decided to read the instructions multiple times so I would get it right, and then spit in the tube. I closed the cap, but not completely (which had reagents to keep the spit viable until it reached headquarters) and put the normal cap on and sent it off. Only after I threw the cap with reagent in the trash, did I realize I did it wrong. I felt like an idiot, since who could possibly mess up four simple steps? Finally, I decided to call the company, and they shipped me another kit for free. I will be getting those results within the next month.

23andme has many benefits as well as controversies. The benefits of this DNA analyzing platform is the ability to know your heritage and ancestors up to 10,000 years ago, traits such as hair color, height and musical pitch, wellness reports to tell tolerance to alcohol and lactose, and health and carrier reports to tell of diseases that may be hidden in your chromosomes. Though some of these characteristics can be found through just looking (e.g. hair color), these characteristics can be found using only your DNA, which is fascinating, since how is my DNA different than someone who has blonde hair? The most controversial topic of this type of analysis is the ability to know what risks you may have in the near or far future. Many people see this as too much for a person because there is sometimes nothing you can do. Others state that it is good to know what could happen in the future so you can live the healthiest and best life. I believe there are many topics that we must work out together as a society, and everyone’s personal beliefs will vary. Those who want to learn of our genetic secrets can explore their DNA through this platform, while others who want to keep their genome a secret that isn’t meant to be unlocked, can keep the book closed and experience life without any worries of what defects their genome may hold.