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What I Learned from 23andMe

It all started innocently enough the last time I was with my sister. We were talking about how different we are, and I invoked the old teasing trope that my sister Allison was switched at birth (though there is anecdotal evidence, nothing has been scientifically proven at this point). As we were talking, it clicked in my mind that maybe we should take a DNA test to solve the matter. In recent years, at-home ancestry DNA test kits, like 23andMe and Ancestry.com have become quite popular and affordable. I proposed to Allison that we could find out definitively once and for all if indeed we were siblings or not; I would take a test if she would take a test. I have since gotten my test results back, but as of this writing, Allison still has not yet even sent her test in. I’m taking this as a sign that Allison knows the truth and is still trying to hide it…

Aside from settling the matter as to whether my sister and I are actually blood-related, I was mostly curious where the bulk of my DNA comes from. Growing up in America, especially in white populations, we often like to talk about where our ancestors migrated from, whether we definitively know where or not. White people will list off a smattering of European nations, proud of their heritage as a European mutt in this country we refer to as the American Melting Pot. I grew up, however, in a fairly homogenous town, the aptly named Holland, Michigan area where most everyone is to some extent Dutch. It’s no surprise, then, that I considered myself Dutch, and not much else. If you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much! But aside from growing up in a town with windmills, wooden shoes, and an annual Tulip Festival, there wasn’t a lot of evidence to say how Dutch I actually was—or if I had any other surprises in my genes. Sure, I had a pair of Great-Grandparents who emigrated from the Netherlands, but other than that, my not-so-distant relatives were American-born. My family has a few historical records that show when a small number of distant ancestors migrated, but other than that, it was just generally assumed that my forebears came from the Netherlands. Or northern Germany, as they are geographical neighbors. But the Germans never really got more than a passing mention in my family’s lore.

Upon recommendation from a friend, I decided to go for the 23andMe test kit. The test kit breaks down recent ancestry into a multitude of regions and sub-regions, as well as giving genetic information on phenotypic traits and health risks with a provided scientific backing behind it all. Once I received the at-home test kit, I spit a copious amount into a tube and then mailed the sample away to a lab to await my results. I mostly wanted the results to show how ‘Dutch’ I actually am. Or, if in fact my DNA would have a surprising trace of genes from another ethnicity. Some Euro-American individuals, in an effort to bolster their feeling of diversity, may talk about how one of their distant ancestors was a Native American or an enslaved African-American. There was no such talk of this in my family though. Would the DNA test reveal otherwise?

After getting my results back, it turns out I am indeed very white—or more appropriately, of European genetic origin. 100%, in fact. All of my genes come from European heritage (it should be noted that 23andMe types DNA according to particular genetic sequences which are held in common by a reference population with known ancestry to a particular region. These results mean that I share particular DNA segments with people of a known regional European ancestry).

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Not surprisingly, as the story told by my living ancestors attests, the bulk of my DNA originates from the Netherlands. 73% match in fact for the category 23andMe titles ‘French and German.’ Within this grouping of countries, 23andMe does not break down ancestry by percentages; instead, ancestry DNA matching is listed by likelihood of a DNA match. Turns out, I’m a ‘highly likely’ match for the Netherlands. This is followed by a ‘likely’ match for Germany. All other countries in the region—Austria, Belgium, France, Luxembourg, and Switzerland—I did not have any likely DNA matches from. Looking at my results, I am mostly Dutch ancestry, as I believed, with the smattering of Germans that my family only slightly acknowledges.

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The biggest scandal of the DNA test, the big surprise that I had been waiting for, was that I am 25.5% Scandinavian ancestry. No one in my family had ever mentioned anything about Scandinavian ancestors! To think that my family has been hiding the fact that somewhere far back in the family tree are a few crazy Swedes or Norwegians! (Given this new information, it now all becomes clear why I fit in so well with the primarily Scandinavian ethnic population of northern Minnesota. Uff-da!)

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To round things out, the last remaining 1.5% of my DNA is defined as Broadly Northwestern European. These are genes that are common in Northwestern Europe, but not specific to a particular country. To sum it up, I suppose, I am of broadly Northwestern European ancestry. No big surprises in my genes, I’m afraid.

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Reflecting on what I learned, I can’t say that my life was changed too much by finding out my DNA ancestry. It pretty much confirmed what I had already known, or had at least suspected. Before any person takes the test, though, 23andMe does go through a fair number of disclaimers aimed at educating participants in how learning the results of one’s DNA makeup can be upsetting. I am not upset, though. If anything, getting my results makes me even more likely to pursue a long bicycle tour of Northwestern Europe. But I was planning on dong that someday anyway.

Aside from just learning the background of your ancestral DNA, 23andMe offers an outlook into certain genetic traits and health markers. Many of these of course are for disease risk and are quite serious to look at. But there is also the much lighter side of genetic traits, which range from the standard to the inconceivable.

Some of these traits seem intuitive that there is a strong genetic component. For example, 23andMe correctly predicted most of my phenotypic features—blue eyes, unattached earlobes, little to no back hair, an uncleft chin, and no dimples. In regards to hair loss, much to my relief, I have an 82% chance of not going bald before age 40 and an 87% chance of not having a bald spot.

And then the genetic results get more bizarre and interesting, as the trait report begins to list not just physical traits, but also behavioral traits and preferences. These more far-flung personal attributes do have certain genetic markers in common among populations with said trait, as per 23andMe’s research, though the company also acknowledges other physical and cultural factors are at play too. For example, I have about average odds of hating chewing sounds and I am about as likely to get bitten by mosquitoes as others. But, fortunately I’m less likely to be afraid of heights, and also less likely to be afraid of public speaking (I can attest to both). Apparently, according to 23andMe, my circadian rhythm should wake me up naturally at 8:16 AM. I also have less than two percent Neanderthal DNA.

Aside from that, 23andMe says that I’m more likely to detect a distinct odor in my urine after eating asparagus (that’s true…), but also that I’m more likely to think cilantro tastes like soap (I don’t). And apparently I don’t have a particular preference for either chocolate or vanilla ice cream. I’ll actually eat any ice cream. And on that note, I’ll say thank you to my Northern European ancestry which has blessed me with an incredibly high dairy tolerance.

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