Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
July 9, 2020

23andMe, myself and I

The non-phenotypical implications of a DNA test

By AMELIA ISAACS | December 5, 2019

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I just took a DNA test, turns out I’m 100 percent that b—. Well, not quite, but love you Lizzo. I took a DNA test in January, got the results a month later and found out that I’m not 100 percent anything. Don’t worry, it wasn’t some shocking turn of results — I knew my DNA would prove to be a multicolored pie chart.

For Christmas last year, my lovely mum went against her better judgement and bought me a 23andMe kit (#notspon). After harping on at her for who knows how long about how interesting I thought it would be to see an exact breakdown of my ancestral composition, she got me the kit with health services so that I could see how likely I am to get certain diseases. 

I also learned that I'm likely to consume more caffeine (I’ve never drunk coffee, and yes that is something I am very proud of and yes I do drink tea); I’m likely to be lactose intolerant (dairy is one of my many allergies); I’m unlikely to flush when I drink alcohol (I turned 21 in October so obviously only recently confirmed that one!) and tons of other traits related to diet, exercise, appearance, senses or sleep. Apparently, by looking at over 450 places in my DNA that are associated with being a morning or night person, it was calculated that I’m likely to wake up around 8:53 a.m. The more you know. 

Far more interesting though — at least in my opinion, for all I know you’re really interested in finding out whether you’re likely to have a fear of public speaking (I’m 50/50 just in case you’re wondering) — was my ancestry. I wanted to find out who I am, at least from a genetic point of view, not a 24601 Jean Valjean. 

I think that any result you get from a DNA test is interesting. If you’re 100 percent one thing, that’s interesting. And no, that’s not because no one is really and truly one ethnicity, but because within that one country, you could be from all over. Yes, you might consider yourself to be fully British, for example, but are you English? Welsh? Cornish? What does that breakdown look like? How interesting is that for hundreds of generations, none of your family has married outside of the country?

If you’re 50/50 between two ethnicities, that’s interesting. That means that up until your parents, each side of your family was pretty insular and kept within one group and that your parents are the first to break that trend. 

If you’re a mix of a whole bunch of different things, that’s interesting too — and I’m not just saying that because that’s what I am, I swear. It means that when you look at the map of where you’re from, there are countries all across the world that are colored in. It means that you will have so many different relatives from so many different populations if you look way back. It means that there are traits you’ve inherited from all over, even if there isn’t always an obvious box to tick when you have to share your identity with others. 

No matter what your ethnicity, I can guarantee there are a multitude of stories there. 

And it all comes from a tube of spit. Crazy.

So before I took the test, I had to tell the website what I expected. I thought this was funny because if I knew what to expect with any certainty, why would I be bothering to pay to find out the results? That being said, I went off of what my parents had told me. For my dad’s side: Jewish. For my mom’s: some combination of Indian, Portuguese, British and Irish. 

There were two main things I wanted to find out from the DNA test: where my Jewish ancestry comes from and exactly what the breakdown of the half of me that comes from my mom looks like. 

Growing up I always said I was half Indian. Even though my mum had always told me that I was probably closer to a quarter Indian, with an eighth Portuguese and some mix of British countries thrown in there too, it was far easier to just say “My mum’s Indian,” or “I’m half Indian.” It was the easiest way to explain why I look tanned and to let people feel like they had figured out some secret I wasn’t hiding. 

When I got my results back, I asked my parents for their predictions before I told them. My mom guessed that I would come up as twenty five percent or less South Asian. When I first checked my results, it told me I was 43.7 percent South Asian. Since then, my results have updated and apparently become more accurate with more and more people sending in their DNA, and I am now 44.4 percent Central and South Asian. My Portuguese, which started off as a measly 0.9 percent, has since disappeared. So it turns out that saying I was half Indian wasn’t such a lie, but the results are so far from what any of us expected. 

So now I want to look through my family tree and the ancestry timeline on the website, and figure it all out. For example, I am 5.8 percent Southern Indian and Sri Lankan (at least until more data comes in and then it switches again), and there is strong evidence that my ancestors were specifically from Karnataka and Goa, and apparently my most recent generation who was 100 percent from the Southern Indian Subgroup is somewhere between 1880 and 1940. That makes sense and is something I could probably track. Apparently, though, I also had someone between a third-great-grandparent and a seventh-great-grandparent that was 100 percent Filipino and Austronesian which is so interesting and something that I know absolutely nothing about apart from the 0.2 percent trace ancestry that I have that is Filipino and Austronesian. 

The one constant has been my 49.9 percent Ashkenazi Jewish. I don’t see that changing around any time soon, though I am keeping my fingers crossed that a few years down the line they’ll be able to tell at least roughly where in Europe that’s coming from. But what’s interesting about that is that my siblings and I are the first people in my dad’s family line that are not 100 percent Jewish. My dad’s brother-in-law is Jewish and so my cousins are still 100 percent Jewish, but my three siblings and I are the only people in his direct line that are not entirely Jewish. 

So, like I said, I took a DNA test. I learned about myself. I learned what ice cream flavor I’m likely to like and what diseases I’m likely to inherit, that I’m likely to experience motion sickness but that I likely can’t smell asparagus. I learned that I am — at least for now — 54.2 percent European, 44.4 percent Central and South Asian, 0.2 percent Filipino and Austronesian and 0.1 percent Broadly East Asian and one percent undefinable, which is something I will definitely hang on to. 

And I know that taking this test means that I’ll probably be cloned in the future (cool) and that I’m handing the government all my data (less cool), but Facebook already knows me so well that they prompt me to look at the latest posts from the Cool Dog Group or the Humans of New York page whenever I miss a post. I figure they might as well have my spit too. 

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