At home genetic testing: Is it worth the cost?

Samantha Scetta – Editor-In-Chief

Now that the gift giving season is practically in full force, I know what you’re thinking– What better gift to give than the gift of knowing where your roots stem from? Who doesn’t want to find out that they’re six percent German and have a genetic predisposition to cystic fibrosis? Tis’ the season for ancestry kits and genetic testing.

Well, maybe not for everyone. At-home genetic testing kits have evolved massively from the days of ancestry.com, which was founded on the basis of creating a family tree and potentially meeting some long lost cousins.

Nowadays, you can do much more than simply discover you have a cousin Jimmy from California and great aunt from Swahili. You can actually send in a sample of your DNA to get tested to find out exactly which countries your own DNA is matched to, and to find out if you have a predisposition to certain genetic diseases.

The most popular of these testing kits are ancestryDNA and 23andMe, which analyzes your DNA by looking at genetic variants in your genome that distinguish you from another person, and can issue a “Genetic Health Report” letting you know which genetic diseases you are most likely to be diagnosed with, and which diseases you are a carrier of.

The way DNA analysis works is not magical, it is based on an algorithm. In simplest terms, the algorithm reads each chunk of your genome, compares that to a reference data set of DNA, and gives a probability based on which genes yours are most closely related to.

So if your test says that you are 40 percent Vietnamese, 40 percent of your DNA pieces match similar DNA to what the ancestryDNA or 23andMe gene library has labeled as “Vietnamese.”

Although these techniques are revolutionary, and the libraries of genomes are kept rather secretly, they are not completely perfect and accurate. The more people with known ancestry submit DNA samples, the larger their library will become, and the more closely people’s results will be to what country they originate from.

There is also always the issue of privacy and rights to your own DNA. Before submitting a sample to any genetic testing company, doing extensive research into each company’s privacy policy is recommended. Each company has different measures of security, and for some you may have to go deeply into your account settings to ensure that your DNA is tossed after being tested, and not shared with any of the company’s partners.

For example, more than 80 percent of 23andMe users agreed to have their DNA results shared with research partners…I would ask you to ponder how many of that percentage is actually aware of this sharing?

Checking your state policy of genetic information sharing is also advised, as these laws vary from state to state. There has also been much talk and investigation of life insurers having access to your “Genetic Health Report” from 23andMe, which could cause an increase in the amount of money you pay for life insurance depending on your genetic predisposition.

Although “genetic discrimination” from life insurance companies is still just purely theoretical, it raises an interesting thought about who has access to your genetic information– certainly one to consider before sending off your spit to a genetic testing facility.

Graphic courtesy of Financial Time