Personal genome testing: how much do you want to know about yourself?

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Our DNA is the root to understanding our genetic makeup, and, in many ways, our biological destiny. While you might be fortunate enough to get mowed down by a bus driven by a furiously-texting operator when you’re old and frail anyway, most of us will be felled by any assortment of diseases: cardiovascular disease, cancer, even restless-leg syndrome (imagine driving along a winding cliffside road and you get that need to stretch your leg…).

If you’re someone like Jimmy Carter and know that pancreatic cancer has knocked off just about every member of your family, maybe you can focus your energy on maintaining that organ’s health and maybe even getting the thing excised when you’re sick of worrying about it. But what about the rest of us? Most of us have complex DNA makeups, with a smattering of grandma, uncle Joe, and your distant great-aunt Melba thrown in for good measure. Maybe family secrets have prevented you from knowing much more about your family beyond what your parents reddening faces suggest when you bring up the topic.

Enter personal genomics. Spit in a tube or swipe the inside of your cheek, and cough up upwards of $500, and you’ll get to know much more about what kind of future, and past, your genetic material spells out for you than you ever imagined possible. There are a few companies offering this service: 23andMe, founded by Google founder Sergey Brin’s wife Anne Wojcicki, is the lowest-cost option at about $500. You get a fairly impressive risk profile for all sorts of genetically-influenced diseases and ailments, and some fun stuff: where your ancestors trace their prehistoric origins, and an indication of whether you’re likely to end up lactose intolerant and bald or not.

At the other end of expense is Decodeme, which costs 4 times as much but scans twice as many possible alterations along your DNA strands and can tell you about your likelihood of contracting Alzheimer’s (23andme can not). I won’t get into more of the details but you can read a comparison review. It might be meaningful to you to know that Decodeme’s headquarters are in the spa-like environs of Iceland. Maybe not.

When does this stuff get scary? First, 23andMe offers you insight into knowing whether you’re likely to develop Parkinson’s, which is a bit of a scary bit of knowledge knowing the future that’s in store and how little you can do about it. (Would you want to know that you’ll almost certainly be contracting a horribly debilitating illness relatively early in life, and there’s not much in terms of testing or preventive measures that you can do about it?)

Second, knowing you’re at risk for several diseases just might make you obsessed about it. You could spend your whole life eating whole-grain oat husks washed down with raw, fermented aloe juice in an attempt to stave off colorectal cancer, only to come down with a particularly bad case of the Mondays and bite it. Wouldn’t that be terrible?

Third, on the ancestral origin picture, what if you had attributed your ginger hair, lifelong love of the four-leafed clover, and preternatural draw to the bagpipe and Guinness to your Irish heritage, only to find out that your genealogical roots point east of Minsk? And that O’Malley was Omalsky before the illiterate Ellis Island intake clerks butchered your family name? It could happen.

At any rate, most of these risks are surpassed by the utility of knowing more about yourself, and how much of your fate is hereditarily determined. If you’re like me, you probably don’t think your ancestral origins are anything more than a passing curiosity. And as for your health diagnoses: knowledge is power. Besides, both 23andMe and DecodeMe force you to opt-in to knowing about the really scary stuff. You can find out if you have a propensity to gain weight eating a diet in monosaturated fat without knowing if Parkinson’s is something you’re going to have to surrender your life to eventually.

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