Do you trust a report?

I spit in a tube for my 31st birthday and sent it off in the mail. About a month later, I logged into my 23andMe account for the first time. From the limited information provided (the service was still quite new), nothing surprised me. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but perhaps the confirmation that all my family history – stories, blood relatives, genealogy – matched was unconsciously a relief. (This is not the first time I’ve written about this subject; see E Pluribus Unum for the original blog post.)

Four years later and I’m still getting emails from the company. It’s one of those things you check maybe once a year. Complete some lifestyle surveys so the data becomes more relevant, check out some new features or reports, and generally ignore all the “connection” requests from people claiming to be your second-through-fourth cousins. Maybe I should really explore these far-flung connections, but I guess I’m just not into it right now. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely consumed the information provided the first time I read my genetic ancestry report: 99.9% European, including 46.4% British and Irish, 25.4% German, 5.7% Scandinavian (Denmark), and 21% “Broadly Northwestern European.” The remaining bits were listed as “Broadly Southern European” and “Broadly European.” Okay, okay. I get it. I’m really white.

The most interesting read for me was about my haplogroup, the group of genes that can be traced back on the maternal line. U5a1. Seems like just a random group of letters and numbers, but this bad boy represents a group of humans who have their roots in a little place called Cheddar, England. According to 23andMe, in 1903 there was a specimen unearthed near the Cheddar Gorge that turned out to be the most complete human skeleton in Britain. The skeleton’s bones were dated back to 9,000 years earlier, when the ice age had ended, but farming had not yet spread to the region. The Cheddar Man met a violent end, with a gash above his right eye indicating a bone infection, plus other marks signaling his days as a hunter were clearly over. Recently, his DNA was extracted from one of his teeth and his haplogroup was found to be U5.

Unknowingly, I had already visited Cheddar Gorge with my husband, and I can’t say there was an uncommon connection to the place, but I did seem to rather like it. More recently, when my sister visited me in England in May, we drove the 45 minutes up to Cheddar to sample the cave-aged cheddar (can’t really be cheddar cheese unless it comes from Cheddar) and have a look around. We found a winding trail that eventually took us to the top of the gorge and offered unparalleled views over the countryside. Revisiting a place you know your relatives once lived, especially 9,000 years ago, is quite stunning. A sense that I was home settled into my subconscious in a warming, delightful way. Perhaps this was just a nice confirmation that moving to England was a good idea.

And then there’s the trait report. Wait, my DNA can tell if I’m more likely to smell asparagus in my urine? Apparently. (And yes, “likely to smell.”) I suppose we laugh with incredulity when these reports are spot on: likely no dimples, likely no cleft chin, likely detached earlobes, likely brown or hazel eyes. But for those that are wrong, we just scoff: slightly higher odds of disliking cilantro, more likely than average to be afraid of heights, less likely to have thick hair. I had no idea my spit could predict these things. Obviously, it takes more samples to figure these things out, but to be so specific about certain parts of my identity – like my predicted weight – is a little scary. They got that within one pound. One pound! Damn.

Then again, my family has a story that says we’re part Wyandotte Nation Indian, and that didn’t show up anywhere on my report; this despite my first cousin having 23andMe-tested Native American in his profile and my twin sister and I receiving money from the Bureau of Indian Affairs on our 18th birthday because our father’s father had signed up to the 1904 Olive Roll. We are not, and can never be, Wyandots who live on the reservation and are considered members of the nation due to this history, but I still like to believe I’m part Native American. And Cheddar Man. And so is my daughter.

I guess I logged back in because I’m now a mother. I have a tiny human who is half me and it’s so fun determining which features she gets from me and which she gets from my husband. She has detached earlobes like me, but a pronounced gap between her big and first toes like her daddy. She has shockingly thick, blonde hair like me, but a large head like her father. I always liked Biology in high school, and this personal experiment is a joyous way to see genetics in action.

One thought on “Genetics

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