I had my DNA tested!

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I’m British, I’ve lived in the USA since 2006. I am interested in my family history, and have traced back quite a ways on ancestry.com, but it never quite went back far enough, and each branch I followed eventually grinded to a halt. My primary reason of getting my DNA tested was to find out the deeper history of who I am, how I came to be located on the North-east coast of England growing up, and at what point my ancestors decided to migrate.

My daughter is one year old, she was born on June 19th, she is also a major reason for me doing this: I want her to know where she comes from at a deeper level than I already knew. I also want her to grow up tolerant of other cultures, and understand we’re all the same, because at some point, likelihood is, her ancestors passed through the regions those cultures come from.

Price really wasn’t an issue for me, I only need to do this once. I just found a reputable company (23andMe.com) which uses a reliable laboratory, and placed my order. A short time later, I received a small box which contained everything I would need to collect and send my spit sample. The instructions were very easy to follow, but it did take quite a bit of time for me to collect enough spit (without bubbles) to fill above the line on the tube. The box came with a return label, so once I was done I just dropped it off at the Post Office.

I was notified I had results in less than two weeks, I was in Canada at the time, so did not get a chance to really study them until recently.

I am very happy with the depth of the results, and it’s worth noting that as a male I get both the Paternal (Y-DNA) and Maternal haplogroups, a female would not have that Paternal result as the Y-DNA is passed down only from father to son. It may be worthwhile having a brother tested, as well as yourself, if you are female.

The depth of the results is something I was surprised by: I’m finding out about any genetic mutations I carry (and can pass to my children), that either lead to a disease or an altered drug response. There are also traits people with similar DNA usually have, and then of course there is the history of the haplogroups I belong to, and the ability to find and contact distant relatives.

By default many of the results that people may find difficult to cope with, are hidden. You have to click and ‘unlock’ those results to be able to view them. I think I’m a logical person, I accept we carry mutations and traits in our DNA, but I did still find out I am a carrier for a serious genetic disease (which doesn’t affect me). While I do like that I now know this, and this means my wife can be tested to see whether she is a carrier, I do understand how some people may have problems with these types of results. If you are frightened about the implications of this, it may be better for you to never unlock those results, or to never have yourself tested.

All results are delivered to you through the 23andMe.com Web site.

The Web site
The home page of the members site is essentially a news and research portal. A lot of the traits found in DNA actually came from people answering questions about themselves, and 23andMe then finding similarities in their DNA controlling that trait. So it is worthwhile, when you have time, answering some of their surveys.

Home page of 23andMe.com. Notifying you of new results available to you, and of research you can help with.

The site itself is very functional, with an easy to read layout. And perhaps a Web site is the best way for them to deliver the information, because this isn’t a static test. When new information is found and a genetic mutation identified, they actually give you a result on it, even if they weren’t testing for that when you sent in your sample.

As I said above, most of this is locked when you first visit. You need to specifically ask the Web site to show you the results. It is also worth noting that it’s not saying how you’ll die, or what you have. It is saying what you have an increased risk for, based on what happens to other people similar to yourself. While useful, there wasn’t really anything that made me want to change my life, or that significantly worried me about the results (except from the Carrier Status, which I talk about below).

One of the major benefits, I feel, is the Drug Response section, which could possibly stop me from having to be tested like a lab rat in the future, should I need any of the drugs I have an unusual response to. It’s also interesting as a method for confirming that they really tested me, and didn’t just fake all this, because when I was a child I had a serious reaction to one of the antibiotics listed, and almost died.

The big results though, are the Carrier Status ones. I found out that I carry the variant for Cystic Fibrosis and Hemochromatosis. Both of these do not affect me, but if my wife also carries them, then there is a significant (but not complete) chance of our children being affected. So this does mean my wife will be tested soon, so that we are fully aware of the risks before having another child.

It was also extremely educational reading about the traits I have such as curly hair, ear wax, not being able to taste bitterness, etc! Even finding out that one out of 29 caucasians carries a Cystic Fibrosis related mutation, it was just really interesting reading about it all.

I also love that you can browse the raw data. Gilbert’s Syndrome runs in my family, but I have not been diagnosed. It is also not listed on the 23andMe carrier results list. But from discussion with other users of 23andMe, I found the appropriate raw data and saw that my results match those of people with the condition. This helps me to understand why I occasionally have yellow eyes!

This was what I signed up for, and I am really, really pleased with the results.

My maternal haplogroup is H13a1a. The group originated in the Near East (Russia), moving through Europe after the peak of the Ice Age (18,000 years ago). The group doesn’t really have a solid grouping, with the exception of those still living on the shores of the Caspian Sea, it is one of the most diverse branches of the H haplogroup. What this means for me, of course, is that I can trace my ancestors back to the shores of the Caspian Sea, and now understand that the migration of this group to Spain is what probably led this side of my traceable family to be in Ireland, Scotland and then England within the last 500 years.

H13 positioning approximately 500 years ago.

My paternal haplogroup is R1b1b2a1a. With solid grouping in so many different locations, I actually found it quite funny to see these results. It seems that throughout my entire ancestry they have been long established somewhere, and then moved somewhere else on the planet leaving no real trail to follow. The similarities between this, and what I’ve done leaving England, coming to live the other side of the Atlantic, wasn’t lost on me. It’s funny, it made me feel a lot smaller and made me wonder how much of my personality and decisions, have been developed long before I existed.

It’s worth noting that before I got back my results, I didn’t tell 23andMe where I was from. For all they knew, I could have ancestors in the United States, I could have been Native American, I could be Hispanic or an African American. The results I got back pinpointed the North Sea, I was absolutely amazed, I was born in a coastal town on the North Sea. If I can quote the 23andMe Web site:

R1b1b2 is the most common haplogroup in western Europe, where its branches are clustered in various national populations. R1b1b2a1a2b is characteristic of the Basque, while R1b1b2a1a2f2 reaches its peak in Ireland and R1b1b2a1a1 is most commonly found on the fringes of the North Sea.

So, what does this mean? Well, I have ancestors within the last 17,000 years from India, Northern Africa, the Middle East, Russia, Asia, Scandinavia and obviously Europe. Although I knew Britain was connected to mainland Europe at some point, I had never heard of Doggerland before, but apparently my DNA closely matches that found in Germany and Holland because when Doggerland was swallowed by the North Sea after the Ice Age, we retreated to nearby land in those directions. It’s also likely that I carry Viking DNA from invasions, so that probably explains the white-blond hair when I was a child!

Doggerland has been covered in an episode of Time Team. It actually makes me feel quite cool to realize my ancestors may have been the very first to live on the British mainland, after the North Sea claimed Doggerland.

R1b1b2 positioning approximately 500 years ago.

An interesting thing they do on the maternal and paternal haplogroup profile pages, is they match you with any famous people they can. I am from the exact same paternal haplogroup as Malcolm Gladwell (Canadian Author, born in England), and those of you who know what my hair looks like when I let it grow, will find pictures of him very amusing! Unfortunately he was the only exact match, other people only matched parts of it, so they are only related to me within tens of thousands of years, while Mr Gladwell it could be much closer.

Further reading on your haplogroup, once you know it, is also very easy. Just type your haplogroup into Google and suddenly you’re presented with multiple papers written on the migration of your ancestors. Without knowing your group, the relevance of those articles is lost, so I really like that I now know mine.

I haven’t yet had much use of this because this service isn’t used much in the UK, but it’s also possible to find relatives you never knew you had. My search results bring up a number of 3rd cousins, distant cousins, etc, most of them living in the United States, knowing they have ancestors in Ireland, etc, but it’s not really something I’ll make use of unless more people use it who are closer relatives.

However, there are a few interesting names on there… As I said previously we have tried to trace the family tree on Ancestry.com, it is interesting seeing where some of those branches grew to, and perhaps that is the major benefit for some people with this DNA service: If, for example, you’re an African American whose Ancestors were brought to another location as a slave, just imagine how powerful it would be knowing what country, perhaps even what town you came from – and finding cousins there. It was actually a documentary about someone doing that which led me to try 23andMe.


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Tim is British and lives in the United States with his wife and kids.

He works for software developers Image Space Inc. and Studio 397 on their racing simulations, and is a fan of Gaming, Motorsports, and photography.