Who am I? Where did I come from? Why do I have reddish hair and this huge honking nose?

I know nothing. So one afternoon in early December, I found myself swishing around my own spit and drooling over and over into a tiny tube sent to me by the people of 23andme, a company that bills itself as “the largest DNA service in the world.”

I spat. And spat and then spat some more. It takes a little bit of time to fill that tool with saliva and it ain’t pretty. When it’s done, you snap the lid so that your mouth juice mixes with whatever is stored in the lid. You seal it up, tape it shut and mail it off.

Easy, right?

For me it was. Some people have misgivings about sending their DNA off to a faceless company who might do God knows what with it. After all, it says right in the terms of service that 23andme will keep your sample for between 1 and 10 years, during which time the company – and its contractors – will have access to it. As the user who has shelled out 99 bucks for this service, you have to fill out no end of questionnaires, answering questions about your health, personal habits, medications and so on.

The big question for me was whether I wanted 23andme to send along health-related genetic reports as well as information about my ancestry. For instance, what diseases run in my family. What God-awful health woes are waiting just a few years down the road. What genetic disorders might someday kill me.

It’s a funny thing. The two conflicting philosophies seem to be “forewarned is forearmed” vs. “what I don’t know can’t hurt me.”

We did an informal survey on this and it was almost evenly split. Half would want to know about health matters; the others, like me, wanted to put their hands over their ears and go “la la la la, I can’t hear you!”

“I would absolutely get genetic testing done,” said Julie Bero, in response to our query. “I am not concerned about my ancestry but would love to know what my risks are so that I could make choices and lifestyle changes now. I am adopted and I don’t know my family history, so that is why it is important to me.”

Sounds reasonable enough. But so does Roger Castonguay’s response.

“I don’t want to know how and when I’m going to die,” he said. “Ignorance is bliss.”

I chose to skip the health stuff. In fact, I insisted to anyone who would listen that if 23andme tried to provide those health reports, I was out. I don’t want to know, brother. I’m with Castonguay on this one.

Interestingly, the matter of health is off the table, for now, anyway. Due to an ongoing dispute with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), 23andme has agreed to stop offering health-related results from its genetic test reports to consumers. Why? Because the FDA says 23andme has failed to provide the scientific evidence proving it can accurately predict disease risk in the people who sign up for its service.

But whatever. At the time I did the spit-in-a-tube routine, health screening was still and option and so I wanted to know how it worked. Since I found just about everything in the 23andme reports downright baffling, I turned to an expert: Prof. Donald Dearborn, Biology Department chair at Bates College in Lewiston.

Here’s the short answer on how 23andme professes to provide genetic reports about your health.

“23andMe assays genetic variation by looking for these single-letter changes in particular parts of your 3.2-billion-letter genetic code,” Dearborn tells me. “The letters are of course called nucleotides, and the ones that show lots of variation between individuals are said to be polymorphic. The 23andMe assay is based on examining a large number of what are appropriately called SNPs (pronounced ‘snips’) – single nucleotide polymorphisms – at lots of different locations spread across your 23 chromosomes.

“Broadly speaking, some SNP variations are associated with increased risk for certain kinds of disease, while others don’t have any apparent relationship to health outcomes. But all of them can be somewhat informative about our history – you’re likely to share lots of SNP variations with your close relatives, because you and, say, your cousin both inherited DNA from a shared set of grandparents. The same is true of you and more distant relatives. And if you examined enough SNPs, you would have the resolving power to see similar DNA-sharing with people from your very, very distant past (or even with other primates, like Neanderthals).”

Makes perfect sense. But since we’re not looking at health in my 23andme report, you are free to forget every bit of it.

I always knew I was part monkey

My results came in on Jan. 8. Sort of. There’s no ominous envelope in the mail, one that you might open to a drum roll while preparing to learn exotic secrets about your past. There is no single moment of revelation. Instead, you get an ordinary email that tells you the results are in. Your hands shaking with excitement, you sign in to 23andme and prepare to meet your distant relatives.

Not so fast. Before you learn so much as a single thing, you have to fill out a questionnaire. Height, weight, smoking habits, and on and on until you’ve filled out no less than seven sections. I searched and searched and found no way around this. 23andme might have discovered that you’re the heir to the throne in some obscure country, but until you reveal how much you weigh and what pills you’re taking, they’re not giving you Jack.

Annoying, but I persevered. Finally, I got to a page where I could click “my results.” And after that, “ancestry composition.” I clicked, and clicked and could barely contain my excitement.

Here’s what I got: “Along your mother’s line, you have ancestry in Europe/the Near East in the past few hundred years, that traces back to eastern Africa around 50,000 years ago. Along your father’s line, you have ancestry in Europe/the Near East in the past few hundred years, that traces back to eastern Africa around 50,000 years ago.”

That’s pretty cool, right? There was also a world map with certain areas colored orange or red, blue or purple. It showed that I was 98.5 percent European. The rest was .2 percent Native American, .1 percent non-specific East Asian and Native American, .2 percent South Asian and .1 percent North African, with the final .9 percent a big mystery. At the bottom of the chart, it informed me that I’m 100 percent Mark LaFlamme.

Those results didn’t come all at once. It took a day or two after the initial email before all sections of the report were complete. Not all of them are easy to understand. Click for results on your maternal or paternal lines, for instance, and there’s a lot of educational sections explaining things like haplogroups and Y chromosomes, but nothing much specific to you. There’s a list of famous people from different haplogroups, which I found exciting – at first glance, I believed I had been deemed relatives of some true greats, like Jimmy Buffet, Leo Tolstoy, Anderson Cooper and Yo-Yo Ma. But no. Those sections are mostly comprised of general information. I am from the haplogroup R1b1b2a1a2f, as it turns out. Me and Stephen Colbert.

I moved on, saving the best for last. 23andme promised it could unveil the secrets of my primitive ancestry. I was looking forward to this. When I clicked on the section titled “Neanderthal ancestry,” sure enough there were slope-headed cavemen crawling across the page along with a few woolly mammoths. You are 2.5 percent Neanderthal, declared my report, and that caused me many minutes of high excitement before I realized that it’s slightly below average – that the average human today is actually 2.7 percent Neanderthal (the remainder being Homo sapiens), and isn’t that a kick in the teeth?

“I’m 3 percent,” boasted Nancy Townsend Johnson, an Oxford County woman who also paid for the 23andme service. “I think this means I could kick your ass if you were too slow to outwit me.”

Maybe it’s the missing link in me who had trouble understanding the bulk of my results. At almost every turn, I had to send Prof. Dearborn a spleeny letter asking him to explain things. And explain he did.

“From the origin of modern humans in eastern/southern Africa, there was initial migration in several directions – west to other parts of Africa, and northeast to the Arabian Peninsula,” the professor told me. “This movement to the Arabian Peninsula subsequently diverged in three directions: northwest to go counter-clockwise around the Mediterranean, northeast into central Asia, and east along the coast through India, Southeast Asia and Australia. Eventually, all three of these branches made their way to North America (two via the Bering Strait and one via Greenland) at somewhat different times and with different degrees of impact.”

Interesting. Enlightening. But what about MY results?

“23andMe reports that you are almost entirely European in origin, and mostly Northern European,” Dearborn said. “This may not be a surprise to you, in which case it might feel sort of disappointing because it’s something you knew already. If I sent my DNA to them, I think I’d get a similar answer, as a few generations back I have family origins in England (Dearborn, Chambers) and Germany (Amveg, Swicegood), etc. And I would feel underwhelmed by the information. In fact, I’m not sure that many people would be likely to learn anything that was mind-boggling about their ancestry. In most cases, it would probably confirm things they knew from family history.”

Since I knew almost nothing about my ancestors going in, I did learn a little bit. Not only can I claim some Native American, Asian and African connections, but the breakdown showed that of my European ancestry, I’m 13.8 percent British and Irish, 1.7 percent French and German and .1 percent Iberian (a-hem), with another 82.9 percent nonspecified European. Oddly, there’s no mention at all of Canada.

There are other revelations for which you have to click around a great deal. For example, I have many close and distant relatives named Fortin, Bergeron, Lessard and Langlois. They are scattered across the U.S. and Canada, with big clusters in New England and a smattering in California. Whether my California cousins will let me come live on their couches remains to be seen.

I wouldn’t call my results underwhelming, exactly. There is just very little chance of a big “aha!” moment when clicking through the various details about your history, going back thousands of years to do so.

“I had a good experience with 23andme as far as health information,” said Townsend. “I didn’t find out a whole lot about my lineage that I didn’t already know.”

So, I still don’t know if I’m related to Warren Buffet or Billy Gates – people who might be willing to float me a loan if I can prove a relation. I don’t know if I’m part vampire or where the hell my father’s people came from. Perhaps the slower process of piecing together my family tree might help.

“If you can trace your family history far enough through traditional genealogy methods, I think you’re likely to get a better, more detailed picture of your ancestry,” Dearborn says. “But if you don’t have a starting point for building a genealogy, or all of your most recent ancestors have threads that disappear very quickly in your genealogy research, a commercial genetic analysis might give you some rough information that you otherwise can’t get.”

Interestingly, as I was perusing my results, messages were coming in left and right through the built-in 23andme mailbox from long-lost relatives who happen to be in the 23andme database. Each email is titled: “A relative would like to make contact with you.” Here’s one from a lady named Rennatta, who lives somewhere in the U.S.: “Through our shared DNA, 23andMe has identified us as relatives. Our predicted relationship is 4th cousin, with a likely range of 3rd to distant cousin. Would you like to explore our relationship?”

Hmm . . .  That’s the same note I would have written to Cousin Billy Gates or Uncle Warry Buffet had my genetic testing proven a connection between us. She must think I have lots of money to loan her and a place for her to sleep.

Poor woman.

DNA testing companies

(Source: Wikipedia)

* 23andMe (adoption, deep ancestry, ethnicity, genealogy, health)

* African Ancestry (deep ancestry)

* AfricanDNA (FTDNA affiliate)(deep ancestry, ethnicity, genealogy)

* AncestrybyDNA (deep ancestry, ethnicity)

* AncestryDNA (a subsidiary of Ancestry.com) (adoption, ethnicity, genealogy)

* BritainsDNA (formerly Ethnoancestry)(deep ancestry, ethnicity)

* DNA Ancestry and Family Origin (FTDNA affiliate in the Middle East)(adoption, deep ancestry, full mtDNA sequencing, genealogy)

* DNA Consultants (deep ancestry, ethnicity)

* DNAme (deep ancestry, ethnicity)

* DNA DTC (research, health, whole genome sequencing)

* DNA Spectrum (ethnicity)

* DNA Tribes (ethnicity)

* DNA Worldwide (FTDNA affiliate)(deep ancestry, ethnicity, genealogy, paternity, relationship)

* Ethnoancestry (see BritainsDNA)

* Family Tree DNA (adoption, deep ancestry, full mtDNA sequencing, genealogy, identity, relationship)

* Full Genomes Corporation (full Y-chromosome sequencing)

* Gene by Gene (parent company of Family Tree DNA, DNATraits, DNADTC and DNAFindings)

* Genebase (deep ancestry, genealogy)

* Genographic Project (deep ancestry, ethnicity)

* iGENEA (FTDNA affiliate)(deep ancestry, genealogy)

* IrelandsDNA (See BritainsDNA) (formerly Ethnoancestry)

* Oxford Ancestors (deep ancestry, genealogy)

* Roots for Real (deep ancestry, ethnicity, genealogy)

* ScotlandsDNA (formerly Ethnoancestry)(deep ancestry, ethnicity)

* Sorenson Genomics (laboratory services)

* YorkshiresDNA (See BritainsDNA) (formerly Ethnoancestry)

* YSEQ (custom Y-SNPs)

Note: For a comparison of four of the more popular services, go to: http://www.isogg.org/wiki/Autosomal_DNA_testing_comparison_chart


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