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Unlocking my past through DNA
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It sounded like fun. It always does until someone gets hurt.
For $100 apiece, Sue and I got our DNA tested. It's simple: You sign up online, they send you a little kit, you spit into a fancy test tube and send it back. Six weeks later, voila -- you know for sure where your ancestors came from. None of this "I was King Henry the Eighth in a past life" nonsense, but how much of me is European, how much is Asian, how much is African? Am I a carrier of some genetic disease?
The first thing most people say when they find out we did this is, "Why? What about your privacy?" Sorry, but if you have a Facebook page, a credit card or a driver's license, your privacy ship has already sailed. And really, what does it matter if someone knows my ethnic heritage or who my fifth and sixth cousins are? I don't even care that much; why would anyone else?
The second question people ask is, "What did you find out? Were there any surprises?"
Oh, yeah, there was a surprise. I am 2.6 percent Neanderthal. No wonder Mensa never called me back. First, I didn't know Neanderthals and humans could mate. How can I have any of their genes? Sue had a lot of fun with that -- until she opened her file. Turns out she's 2.5 percent Neanderthal. Still, she's less caveman than I am, which she now mentions with depressing regularity. In public.
The results also told me I probably have brown hair and brown eyes, and on and on, then listed genetic markers I carry for diseases and syndromes which, at my age, I already have. Having a marker for a disease or a cancer doesn't mean you will get it. Most diseases need an environmental trigger, too.
The test tells you which of your relatives, known and unknown, have also taken this test. Since the test is only available to people who have an extra $100 handy, most of our distant relatives are not going to be in this database. Mine lists about 260 people I'm related to, most of them fifth or sixth cousins who live all over the world. You can choose to have your identity open to these people, or not. I chose "not."
But the most interesting of all is that, if you like, you can become part of the quest to break all the DNA codes. By answering questions about your health history and your environment, anonymously if you like, it helps find new markers. And there are some real oddball questions: "Do you like the taste of cilantro?" It turns out about 17 percent of people of European descent hate it. It sounds silly, but what if they find that every cilantro-phobe also has the marker for something else, something serious and hard to detect? Suddenly we may discover a simple, inexpensive test for some condition. Or maybe we'll find out Neanderthals are much smarter than we thought.
Contact Jim Mullen at JimMullenBooks.com.