Thursday, February 19, 2009
Q & A with a 23andMe customer
23andMe are a leading personal genomics company based in California. Their service won the Time Magazine invention of the year award in 2008. Basically, they test 580,000 of your genome-wide SNPs, and then give you a colorful presentation on the results. Here's what one of their customers from Finland recently told me about her experience...
Q: Why bother with this sort of thing? Was it to test your ancestry or genetic health risk factors?
A: Initially, I was more interested in the health risk factors. Being mono-ethnically Finnish, there is no mystery about my ancestry. I also know a lot more about my ancestry than the average Finn. I have been an avid genealogist for the past ten years, and I have also taken other genetic tests before 23andme. I already knew my mitochondrial haplogroup and my father's Y-DNA and mitochondrial haplogroup. And I had taken the AncestryByDNA 2.5 test to find out my admixture percentages. I honestly didn't think 23andme would be able to tell me anything new about my ancestry.
Q: Why 23andMe and not the apparently more thorough deCODEme? Was it the price difference ($399 vs. $985)?
A: It was the price difference. I wouldn't pay $985 for such a test.
Q: Was it easy getting the sample with the kit provided, and how long did it take from the time you ordered the kit to when you received the results?
A: It does take some spitting to get the amount they require, but I found the whole process quite smooth from ordering to getting my results. All in all, it took about four weeks from the date I ordered until I got my results, but I am aware that it now takes longer than that.
Q: What did you think of the results when you first saw them? Easy to understand? Did you have to send some follow up e-mails?
A: I was in awe at all the information I received, and I didn't have any problems understanding the results. The 23andMe site is very clear and contains lots of well written information. I have also done some extra reading. And although I initially wasn't that interested in the ancestry related data, I found that fascinating, too. I especially like the Ancestry Painting that shows your admixture percentages as well as the Global Advanced Similarity tool that shows what global population groups you most resemble.
What I did have trouble understanding was the differences between some of the genetic plots and comparisons on the site--the Advanced Global Similarity plot versus the Genome Wide Comparison to be precise. I was confused that two individuals who are genetically most similar to each other when comparing all of their genome data aren't necessarily close to each other on the Global Similarity map. I eventually found a description of the different algorithms they use on a discussion forum, but I think they should have provided explanations on the algorithms on the 23andme site.
Q: How would you rate the accuracy of the scan against what you know about your origins?
A: I would rate the results quite accurate, especially the Advanced Global Similarity plot. So far, I have seen the results of two other Finns, and we are amazingly close to each other.
I am a bit uncertain of the admixture estimates, though. It seems that they have a different approach to reporting minor admixture than some other companies. Some people who have tested at both deCODEme and 23andMe say that deCODEme shows slightly higher admixture percentages.
As for myself, the AncestryByDNA test I have taken reported that I have 13% East Asian admixture, while 23andMe says I have less than 1%. I am not sure which result to believe.
Q: Has the information about your ancestry changed how you now identify ethnically or look at certain cultures or world regions? For example, do you now show more interest in Asia knowing that you have some East Asian admixture?
A: It hasn't changed how I identify ethnically at all. Quite the reverse, I am feeling even more Finnish if that is possible.
Regarding the small amount of Asian admixture I have, it does feel somewhat confusing. I have never had much interest in East Asia, and I am not sure if I have any more interest now. If anything, maybe the test has made me feel closer to other Europeans than before. But most importantly, I do like the feeling of knowing what I am made of and where I stand on the world wide genetic plots.
Q: Were you in any way disappointed with the results? For example, were you let down by where you ended up on the genetic maps or who your closest individual matches were?
A: The only thing I am slightly disappointed with is that I fall outside of the most detailed views on the Advanced Global Similarity plot. For instance, I would have liked to be included in either the Eastern European or the Northern European box to compare myself to other users, but I hope that will change when they add more reference populations. For the time being, I feel kind of special being the most northern sample on any of the plots.
Q: Was the health information useful? Are you going to make changes to your lifestyle based on the data provided to limit some risks?
A: It is maybe useful to some extent, but perhaps more interesting than useful. I take the results with a pinch of salt, as it is likely that there are more factors affecting your risks than what they currently test for. I think knowing what conditions or illnesses your close relatives have or have had tells you more about your real risks. Besides, according to the results, I don't really have that many risks.
Having said that, I have made some slight changes to my lifestyle. I do seem to have an increased risk for age related macular degeneration. Knowing that the risk for this condition can be reduced with a certain type of diet, I now make a conscious effort to eat fish almost every day, whereas I used to have fish about twice a week. But to be honest, I really don't believe my risks for that condition are seriously elevated as I don't have any relatives with that condition. And I have always been quite health conscious, so no big changes are necessary.
Q: Would you mention the results during a doctor's appointment if you thought they might have relevance to your visit?
A: I definitely might mention them if I felt they were relevant.
Q: Looking back, was the experience worth the $399? Will you recommend the test to your family and friends?
A: For me, it was worth it, and I have recommended the test to others. I am actually considering ordering additional tests for family members.
Q: In the near future, when full genome sequencing becomes available to the general public at a reasonable price (i.e. around $1000), will you go for it?
A: At that price, probably not.